It came to pass in the year of the Twin Comets that Father Ignatz of Jupiter Base came to Iolanthe, moon of Jocasta in the Sullivan System. When he beheld the Little People of Iolanthe he said: “Blessed is the name of the Lord, for in the darkest reaches His creatures flourish. Not one is born but He knows it, and none perishes that is not, in its innocence, gathered to His breast. And even in their ignorance these praise Him, for by their labor they bring forth things of beauty and dig the Crystals of great price.” And so the Blessed Ignatz determined that the Little People should be brought into the embrace of Mother Church, that they might know their Savior’s name and the price paid long since for their salvation.
The Testament of Norton
University of Solaris Press
You’re a disgrace to your calling and your species.” The Cardinal’s words were at odds with the verging-on-seductive voice of the translator embedded in the Anturean’s Chlor-tank. From beneath lowered lashes Ignatz O’Reilly, D.D. Inter-Species, watched his superior’s mouth-tendrils vibrate, a gesture he knew denoted extreme lust or mounting rage.
Lust was out of the question, he supposed.
“Falling-down drunk at Mass. Passing out in Confession. And don’t think your little black-market dealings go unnoticed.” The Cardinal’s posterior spines flushed blue. Ignatz averted his eyes even further, studying the faint brown lines crisscrossing each other on a slate floor the color of dried blood. The mutant squid bastard really was mad this time.
“If I might be permitted to explain, Your Eminence…” Ignatz’s tongue tasted like last night’s liquor. “I indulge for purely medicinal reasons…a slight asthmatic condition…any allegations that I would engage in illegal…”
Feminine tones cut him short. “Bishop ab-Dubel warned me you were a bad bargain and I should’ve listened. But no, I needed a pastor for Jupiter Base and there you were. Rough crowd, transient population like all those Old Empire backwater holes; I knew I couldn’t be picky. But I did expect even a third-rate priest to get through the te deum without passing out!”
The Anturean continued to rant and Ignatz tuned him out, squinting at the patterns at his feet. He wanted to close his eyes and give in to the hangover that pounded the inside of his skull, demanding surrender, but if he did he knew he’d topple right over.
The brown graphic lines spread across the floor, under the eerie glow of the Chlor-tank, and climbed the walls of the receiving chamber. Here, in his private rooms, His Eminence preferred the subdued, geometric symbols of his home planet to the garish, pan-species iconography of the public Audience Rooms.
The Translator’s voice paused. Ignatz swayed and thought it best to kneel. “Forgive a poor sinner, Your Eminence. I am ready to do what penance you will.” You slimy octopus abortion, he mouthed, head down
“I am glad to hear it.” The Translator managed to sound dry. “Rejoice, for the Church has obtained permission from the Interteam to send a holy shepherd to our new-found brothers in the Sullivan System.”
Forgetting his headache and Church protocol, Ignatz leapt to his feet. “Those…those insects on Iolanthe? You can’t be serious!”
“They are not insects.”
“They’re hardly mammals,” Ignatz sputtered, unthinking.
The Cardinal’s spines quivered dangerously. “Neither am I. Yet, like you, I have an immortal soul. Or do you have the arrogance to dispute that, Human?”
Ignatz collected himself. He knew better than to accuse the Cardinal of the Sirius Heresy, which held that Homo Sapiens was too weak in body and corrupt in mind for its form to harbor the Son of God. But there were rumors.
“Never, Your Eminence. But…”
“Then return to your quarters and prepare yourself. The FTL craft leaves next orbit. You’ll find the preliminary documentation on the Trik’lac in the palace library. I suggest you meditate on your calling and upon the temptations that lead you astray.”
Ignatz opened his mouth and, upon reflection, closed it again. The Cardinal had every excuse to have him defrocked. He had few skills, but one was knowing what needed to be smuggled where for maximum profit, and without the advantages his position in the Church gave him that talent was useless. As a priest he could arrange drops in the shelter of the confession and use dewy-eyed acolytes and lay ministers to deliver messages and small goods. The port police of Jupiter Base weren’t fools, so they knew it wasn’t the Holy Spirit that brought Father Ignatz to minister to freight humpers on the docks on loading day. But they’d never prove it, so they turned a blind eye to his minor trade. He was too big a lush to be a major player, anyway. His mediocrity sheltered him more than the tattered remnants of his faith.
It wasn’t that Ignatz O’Reilly had forsaken his God. But Ignatz’s deity had long since retreated to the background in a universe of drink and quick profits. He’d become a little Bacchus, selfish as Ignatz in his animal pleasures, harmless as a drunken deer, swilling his wine and indolent upon a heap of grapes in the back of his priest’s mind.
He’d made his obeisance to the Chlor-tank and was halfway to the door when the Translator sounded again. “Father Ignatz…”
He turned. “Yes, Your Eminence?”
“I understand from the Interteam surveys that Iolanthe has significant deposits of Q-Crystals.”
Ahhh, thought Ignatz. Things become clear now.
The Anturean continued. “To strengthen the coffers of the Mother Church while reaping souls for the fold would go far to ensure your eventual…and comfortable…redemption.”
In the back of Ignatz’s mind the goat-legged god stretched his limbs and chuckled.
Said Ignatz, “I see.”
Said His Eminence, “I’m sure you do.”
Bloated squid carcass, thought Ignatz.
Horrible hairy ape, thought His Eminence.
As the human priest left, the Anturean invertebrate sunk to the bottom of his tank. Seeking grace, he veiled his eye-pods and thought of shimmering green lights glowing far above him in blood-warm waters.
And the Little People, who called themselves the Trik’lac, listened to the holy words of the Blessed Ignatz and so came to know the will of God, even in the dark womb of soulless space. So went the vision of Saint Sally-Mae Bock-Bier, when the angel came to her and said: “send the minions of the Lord to worlds known and uncharted, send them cheerfully to die amidst the stars and reap the souls of creatures strange, beautiful and horrible in form. For although Christ came in a man’s shape he died transcendent, bodiless.”
Father Ignatz O’Reilly watched Jocasta’s gigantic moon get bigger through the transparent floor of the FTL. He saw purple seas and low-lying islands of bluish-grey that joined together to form ragged continents. Overhead Jocasta hung white in the sky, immense, barren and reproachful. Unlike her satellite she had never developed recognizable life, unless it hid deep in her acid seas where the Interteam dared not venture. Iolanthe was almost Terra-sized, with a high atmospheric oxygen content and a native population of intelligent beings remarkably receptive to contact with otherworldly beings.
The FTL paused one-fifty meters above a junction of shore and sea; a finger of land, crooked and blue, jutted out into the lilac water. Matching Iolanthe’s orbit, the FTL would appear stock-still suspended to anyone on the ground.
“The meeting place.” The First Mate’s voice sounded in the vicinity of Ignatz’s right ear. He jumped and bit back a word unseemly for a man of the cloth to think, much less utter.
“I see,” he said, trying to maintain a semblance of dignity.
“Magnify,” said the First Mate —Ignatz hadn’t bothered to remember the names of the crew —and the scene below jumped closer. Fringes of blue vegetation clustered on the blue shore, while the beet-stained water lapped at the crumbling rocks. The water was shallow, and he saw the silhouettes of creatures, like giant clawless lobsters, scuttering slowly along the bottom.
“Those aren’t them, are they? The Trik’lac?”
He felt the First Mate’s sidelong look. “As your litmanual states, Father, the Trik’lac are land-dwellers. The proto-crustaceans below us, like the other life-forms of Iolanthe, do not appear to be sentient.”
“Of course,” said Ignatz, bristling at the First Mate’s chilly tone. The litmanual, detailing all known information about the satellite and her inhabitants, was still in his cubicle. He’d actually looked at it, once. Before he decided Faster Than Light travel was best done dead drunk.
He did read about the Q-Crystals. Large veins riddled the surface of Iolanthe: rivers of crystal there for the taking. By a freak of nature their molecular structure made FTL travel possible. Naturally a significant source would be invaluable to the Interteam. Naturally such resources are the property of native species. But if they choose to trade…
Ignatz was reasonably certain they’d choose to trade.
“Resume,” said the First Mate, and the monstrous tide pools receded. Beneath the FTL two of the Trik’lac stood. One was still; the other waved its front appendages at the ship in what may have been a formal or a playful gesture. They did look like insects, Ignatz thought, like big, oddly-jointed beetles. Four of their six legs rooted them to the ground, while a central body segment sported another pair that seemed to serve the function of arms, at least when the creature reared up. A carapace protected the body, so covered with ridges and spurs that from this distance the shell looked lacy. Topping the central segment was a tiny head, with outsized eye-pods on either side. While the body was blue-black the eyes blazed with color: greens, blues, the shifting lilac of the shallow sea.
“They’re ready now,” said the First Mate. “Time for detox.”
“I am prepared to take the confessions of any crew that desire to be shrived,” said Ignatz. He knew that several, including the Captain, were of the Faith.
The First Mate swiveled his head slowly, like a big six-legged insect, and transfixed the priest with an icy glare. “Thank you,” he said. “I’ll spread the word.”
They detoxed him scrupulously, with an efficiency that bordered on sadism. He was raw and sore by the time they were finished.
“The point is not to protect you from the Iolanthe’s environment, but the ecosystem from you,” said the Specialist tersely, as yet again she demonstrated the containment procedure (what was her name? Jolie? Julie?). “You are to wear the barrier gear any time you leave your accommodation.” Her manner had been friendlier before she found a contraband bottle of Jovian Green vodka in his personal effects, between his bible and the litmanual. Surly bunch, these clean and shiny Interteam youths.
Good thing she hadn’t found the seventeen bottles he’d managed to stash in the supply compartment at the beginning of the trip.
He nodded owlishly over the skintight gloves, the static-boots, the transparent suit equipped with an alarming number of tubes and pouches for diversion of waste and by-products. No burying your dung here, in Virgin Territory. No peeing in the bushes.
“We will be monitoring your telemetry,” she continued, as she buckled him in the pod. “Should you leave your quarters without appropriate gear we will be aware of it. Such action constitutes a class B violation of the Universal Environmental Code.”
“It’s like she doesn’t trust me,” said Ignatz over her shoulder to the First Mate, who’d come to see him off.
The First Mate didn’t smile. “The crew’s come to be very protective of the Trik’lac. They’re a likable species. We wouldn’t want any harm to come to them.”
“Then you should be glad that the Mother Church seeks to save their immortal souls,” said Ignatz cheerfully, for the pleasure of seeing the man’s angular face darken.
“Before I go,” he continued, “would the Captain care for me to bless the ship?”
The First Mate studied the priest’s face a moment. During the 2nd Interstellar Schism of two centuries ago, when there were twenty-eight popes at one time and the venality of the clergy was legend, it was said that Heaven was empty, so corrupt was the very core of the Church.
“She would not,” said the First Mate.
And although Ignatz was teasing the man, his feelings were hurt. After all, he was an anointed priest of the Church, the temporal intercession between God and the Sentient.
The goat-legged god yawned, showing pink gums and sharp white teeth.
Ignatz paused before stowing the last Q-Crystal with its fellows. Half the size of his palm, it felt warm and silky in his hand. The interior was opaque, fractured by the countless tiny matrixes integral to its structure.
A pretty little thing, he thought, wrapping it in a scrap of static-cloth and placing it carefully in the waste-bag. He touched the seal and with a faint hiss of escaping air the bag closed in on itself, twenty kilos of Q-Crystals cradled inside. The bag went inside a carryall, almost filled to capacity by similar bags and marked by the Imprimatur of the Mother Church. No one, from a customs inspector to a FTL captain could open anything so sealed.
A pity that Mother Church’s coffers would not benefit. Ignatz intended to cast off his vocation as soon as the next FTL plucked him from Iolanthe and deposited him on Jupiter Base. He’d move the crystals through the smuggling network; they’d be snapped up by any shipper needing the extra, untaxed Q-Drive boost. A touch more speed, a trifle more maneuverability —anything that cut customs charges was worth money, more than a small-time whiskey priest could ever hope to realize.
“Father?” The translator embedded in his suit’s circuitry buzzed. Ignatz glanced at the door of the outsized tent that was his quarters. He’d forgotten to seal it again. Just outside the flap the lacy back-ridges of a Trik’lac were visible.
“Grak’til?” He was guessing —it was difficult to distinguish one Trik’lac from another, although there was variance in their assorted spurs and spikes. Grak’til was the one who most often came to his tent, however. Ignatz had the impression he was younger than the others of the group.
The Trik’lac mined the crystals from their shallow veins and the low-lying caves that dotted the plains of the continent of which they were the dominant species. They flaked the rocks to produce the sharp blades that were their primary tool, although as far as he could tell they never used them for attack or defense. They had no natural enemies and no internal conflicts. Absurd to send a priest to Eden.
Stowing the carryall under the bed, he waved to the Trik’lac. “I will come,” he called.
“Delicious,” replied the creature, scuttling away. The translator, programmed with the basics of the vocabulary and grammar of the Trik’lac language, learned and processed nuance and idiom as it went: after several years of use it would be very fluent. For now, some of the responses he got bordered on the bizarre.
He wondered what the 23rd Psalm sounded like in Trik’lac. What was their version of the Valley of the Shadow of Death? And the Feast in the Presence of Mine Enemies?
As he left his quarters he remembered to seal the entrance, and the whir of the oxy-generators inside became less frantic. In response to Iolanthe’s low-O2 atmosphere the tubes in the neckpiece of his suit began to seep pure oxygen. He breathed deeply and smiled. Heady stuff, that. Almost as good as the booze.
Grak’til waited patiently. As Ignatz approached the beetle-like creature clacked one of its upper appendages against its back-spurs and held up a small white object with the other. The priest smiled as he bent down for the Q-Crystal. The Trik’lac knew he collected the crystals and often brought him those they mined or found in the cave-rubble. They seemed amused by his interest.
“Thank you, Grak’til,” he said, rubbing the surface of the crystal with a gloved thumb before dropping it in a utility pocket.
“As it pleases, Father,” the Trik’lac responded. The translator’s voice buzzed, harsh and unmusical, behind his ear. It was a pity the field models didn’t have the feminine inflection of those in common use back home; he liked the thought of these giant bugs speaking in the breathy accents of a Jovian call girl.
“The Elders summon?” he asked, knowing the translator would drop the pronoun. It worked more efficiently if he attempted to match the Trik’lac’s idiom.
“They ask, if it pleases.”
“Happy,” said Ignatz, and the Trik’lac clacked its ridges once more before turning to lead the priest to the Meeting Place. Sullivan was beginning its descent and the late afternoon light was heavy and golden. Ignatz noticed a chill in the air; the long warm summer/spring season was coming to an end. Nine months he’d been here, and never a day of bad weather. Eden.
The foliage was changing as well. The waist-deep bushes and vines that tangled across the plains, branched and veined by the paths the Trik’lacs had worn, were turning a brilliant green. Here and there a stalwart shrub remained solidly blue-grey, and in the distance an azure haze showed the season’s change had not yet fully spread. But from the slopes above where his tent-quarters stood to the lilac sea where the Elders waited at the Meeting Place all was emerald and jade. Eden.
The Elders clacked their back ridges as Grak’til led him to the circular clearing. Having no ridges to clack, Ignatz inclined his head.
“Pleasure,” muttered the translator, and “Pleasure,” again, as the Elders murmured their greetings. Ignatz replied that he was glad to attend them, that nothing made him happier, keeping a sharp eye on the serrated tips of the upper appendages of the nearest Tric’laks. Something was different this day. They were as polite as always. But something in their manner was wrong.
Nervous natives made him nervous. He had no intention of becoming a martyr. Each Trik’lac was less than half his size, true, but there were thirty or more at council, and their claws were sharp.
Something touched his hand and he jumped. Grak’til, standing behind him. The young Trik’lak’s air was apologetic.
“It is known the mind is with God, the God you bring. It is known the concerns of the flesh are beneath such a holy one. But the Elders are troubled, and would consult God’s Messenger. It befits the youngest and most foolish to speak of petty things.”
Ignatz glanced at the loose semicircle, some shifting restlessly back and forth. Usually they sat at the Meeting Place, listening with rapt attention to his cribbed sermons and parables. The Savior made Simple. Catholicism for Insects. He doubted that in the whole history of the Mother Church there’d ever been an easier conversion.
The Trik’lac took everything he said, every word, as a matter of absolute faith. They doubted nothing, denied nothing. It took him a while to figure out why and when he did he grinned and winked at his goat-legged god, who smirked back in complicity.
The Trik’lac never developed the fine art of lying. They always told the absolute truth.
Why lie, in Eden?
And now the change in their demeanor made him uneasy. But they didn’t seem bent on massacre.
Cautiously he answered. “Happy to listen.”
But when Ignatz spoke of Jesus the Trik’lac wept. “Alas,” they cried. “For the time of the Great Death is upon us and the seed that lies within us shall never know the Lord.” And the Saint was astonished and asked the cause of their sorrowing. They told him thusly: that every ninth revolution of the planet Jocasta came the long season of cold that killed the land, the plants that grew there and the tiny life that lived therein. And at this time each of their people would go deep into the caverns and die the Little Death among the Crystals, until the warm season returned and so revived them. But first they would take such foodstuffs as they had gathered and dissolve them into a gel, binding them in such a way that they might feed upon them when they woke, so that in the days before the plants renewed the Trik’lac should not perish. Always there were those that never woke from the Little Death, their seedlings hatching from their cold husks, and always there were those that woke that they might teach and foster the little ones born thus. So had the Trik’lac lived since they had known time.And the Saint said, “Praise God, then, for thus he charts your birthing and dying and all is provided for.”
But the Trik’lac said, “we are perished and will know God no more, for the growing things that are our food, that we bind against the cold, have turned green and died before their time. We have no stores to see our seedlings through the barren times, and our race shall die.”
And the Saint said, “fear not, God will provide.” But his heart was troubled.
Ignatz looked at the emerald green leaf in his hand. He rubbed it between his fingers. It crumbled to dust, dry as the sands of Golgotha.
He let it fall, bright motes on the floor of his quarters. Something was killing the foliage of Iolanthe, something lethal and unforeseen. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what it was.
Waste, buried a few meters from his tent. He needed the bags to seal the Q-Crystals.
Peeing in the bushes, for he was a lazy man and disliked the catheter.
And sixteen empty bottles of Jovian Vodka, scattered in the undergrowth.
Standing on the shore he could see it so clearly: the deadly star of green scarring the land, his quarters dead in the center. Why didn’t they know? Why couldn’t they make the connection? Even if their optical nerves couldn’t register the intensity of the green surrounding his tent, surely they could see the correlation between the arrival of an alien life form and the contamination of their food source. Why didn’t they know him for what he was, the serpent in the Garden of Eden?
Because, in their sacred simplicity, it was impossible for a messenger of God, for so he said he was and so he must be, to bring them harm.
Now he broke the seal of the last bottle of Jovian and took a gulp, welcoming the familiar burn down his gullet.
Poor little creatures. Soon they’d crawl into their caves for their last hibernation, and the FTL would come to take him to a life of untold riches. By the time the Interteam figured out there was anything wrong with Iolanthe’s dominant species, he’d be long gone.
Poor innocent bastards.
He knew Grak’til was outside the tent, waiting for the priest to emerge with words of grace and comfort. The vodka glowed in his belly.
By God he’d do it. He was still the Lord’s anointed.
He capped the bottle carefully. He wanted every drop safe and sound.
He stood on the outcropping of stone behind the Meeting Place. The Elders were there, and hundreds more, making the shoreline black with their bodies. The red light of Sullivan setting glinted off their carapaces.
He raised his hand and the Trik’lac bent their legs beneath him, squatting to listen. They sat still, with no nervous shifting in their ranks.
Ignatz took a deep breath and tried to remember.
“When the hour was come,” he began, and his liquor-roughened voice drew strength from their stillness. He ignored the buzzing of the translator. “He sat down, and the apostles with him. And taking bread, he gave thanks, and broke it and gave them, saying ‘this is my body…'”
So that day the Saint told them of the Last Supper, of the bread and wine that were Christ’s flesh transcendent, that he gave to the Universe and its Creatures. When he was done he blessed them, and, returning to his chamber, he fell into a heavy slumber, whereupon he sought visions. And the Trik’lac thought long upon his words.
His head felt stuffed with the dead leaves of the plants he’d killed. Around him he heard the clicking of carapaces, felt the movement of small creatures. With a huge effort he pried his eyelids open.
An iridescent jewel half the size of his fist glinted before him: the eye of a Trik’lac. He found it hard to breath.
“Grak’til?” he croaked. The creature was sitting on his chest.
“Yes, Father,” the translator buzzed. He’d forgotten to take off his suit, and a light still burned in the tent. Careless of him.
Other Trik’lac surrounded his bunk, and he felt the weight of at least two on his legs.
“What the hell’s going on here?” he managed, not bothering with the idiom. His tongue felt like lead. Claws, gentle beneath his shoulders, lifted him up.
“No fear, Father,” said Grak’til. Ignatz barely registered the flash of white, the crystal blade in the Trik’lac’s claw, the swift stabbing movement.
Pain blossomed like a rose at the base of his skull.
He opened his mouth and tried to scream. Some air came out and he managed a squeak. His lungs refused to give more.
The pain was gone.
All feeling below his neck was gone.
He couldn’t move his head. He couldn’t move anything. At the edge his vision he saw movement: the floor crawling black with the Trik’lac.
“No fear,” repeated Grak’til. “The Elders would have no suffering. Not for the gift the Father gives.”
“Wha?” Ignatz managed.
“In the night the wise conferred and found the true message of the Father’s words. The Father’s body will nourish us after the Little Death, so our seedlings will not die.”
“No!” screamed Ignatz, but nothing came out. Desperately, he concentrated on squeezing the air from his paralyzed lungs. Grak’til bent close to hear.
Somehow he forced a whisper. “Poison.” The translator buzzed.
“But the Father has said: the Lord will provide. He would not poison us, or send a false messenger.”
But I am falsest of the false, said Ignatz silently, and I mean you no good and I have wrought your destruction for my profit and nothing else. His lips refused to move, and the translator was silent.
Considerately the Trik’lac kept him propped up so he could see them at work, saw them exude a thick, clear liquid from their mouth-slits, a liquid that dripped on his legs and turned them to jelly: skin, flesh, bones and all. Saw them roll globs of the gelatinous mass into pellets and roll them away.
When his legs were gone and they started on his torso he began to laugh in short breathy gasps. His lips moved, his voice so faint the translator could not pick it up. “As it pleases, Grak’til.”
But the Trik’lac understood. “Delicious, Father” he replied.
Ignatz’s God laughed with him then, rising from his heap of grapes and stretching out his arms in welcome.
And Ignatz told them: “take my flesh, dissolve it and bind it up that you might live again. I give you my body of my own free will that you might know and teach your generations the way of the Lord.” The Trik’lac did as he ordered, and when their Little Death was ended they feasted and praised the Lord who had provided for them. And they found in the chambers of the Saint a store of the Crystals he had set aside and they built an altar, as he had intended.In this way Ignatz the Blessed died to live again.
“Nuts,” said His Eminence, when he read the report. “Now I’ll have to beatify the oxygen-breathing bastard.”
And to give him credit, he did.