From a spot well away from the row of chairs where Jennifer, Carl and Tim sat, a white pedestal rose about eighteen inches out of the floor. It made no noise whatsoever, as its top opened and bright colors swept upward like a kaleidoscope.
The lights and colors coalesced quickly into a holographic image of exceptional clarity and depth. It looked real, except that it appeared to be about one-quarter life size.
The scene was of a small, two-masted wooden ship, perhaps thirty-five feet long and ten feet abeam. It was sloop rigged, its sails billowing as it ran before a brisk breeze.
At the helm, a sailor had both hands on the wheel. The sailor’s eyes were on the ship’s captain, who was standing at the port bow, his feet wide apart, his body swaying easily as the small ship raised and dropped with waves. In his hands was a familiar looking instrument, which he had aimed heavenward. He was obviously in the midst of taking a sighting.
Ceil turned her attention back to the sailor at the helm. He was broad shouldered and very fit looking, with a simple close-cropped beard and a sailor’s cap on his head.
As she watched, the captain’s voice rang out. Ceil recognized the language as Italian, and although hers was rusty, she picked up a few words.
“….the night sky is clear…”
“….Polaris is very bright tonight….”
The sailor at the helm answered back, and Ceil thought the voice was oddly familiar.
And then she saw the truth of it. When it hit her, her hand flew to her mouth and she let out a little cry.
“Samuels. That’s you, isn’t it?”
Instantly the scene changed. This time it was dark, the night broken only by the light of huge torches against the black sky. The torches were large timbers, each set upright in the ground. On each timber, a body was bound tightly, with the head held upright by another binding. Some were just charred skeletons, hanging limply, most of the flesh consumed by the burning logs surrounding the poles. Others held still-struggling bodies, and now the screams penetrated her consciousness. She could almost smell the stench of burning flesh.
Near the upright at the far right, the flames leaped high, but the body on the pole was very much alive.
Ceil watched the girl’s agony (she could see now that it was a female) as the flames engulfed her lower body, burning away her clothing and exposing her legs and torso.
Suddenly, the girl stopped screaming and, for a moment, was silent and unmoving. Then she shouted, to a lone figure close enough to the flames to feel their intense heat. “Don’t let them forget me, Charles!” The language was French, and Ceil had no trouble understanding it.
“You will be remembered, my lady.” The voice, instantly familiar now, was that of Devon Samuels, his French perfect.
“Take my crucifix, when it is over. Use it to keep my memory alive.”
Ceil could see Samuels reflected in the flames. He seemed genuinely saddened by the scene before him.
Again the scene changed abruptly, this time to a very quiet late night setting. There were campfires on the ground, at intervals, and men squatting around them. The men talked in low tones, as first one and then another left the fire to perform chores, then came back.
The scene was dominated by a row of huge wooden crosses, each set in a hole in the ground. On each cross was a man, each crucified feet down, arms outstretched on the horizontal arm of the cross and held in position by large spikes through their hands.
A larger than average man rose from one of the fires and, picking up a spear, walked to a cross about forty yards away. The man was wearing a leather tunic and a short leather skirt. His legs were bare, and on his arm, Ceil could see the bright tattoo that she had seen on Samuels’ arm.
Without even seeing his face, Ceil knew it was Samuels.
The man on the cross awakened then, his eyes bright with the pain of his wounds. He spoke to the soldier watching him, but the language was harsh, guttural, and Ceil didn’t understand it.
“He’s asking for water, but I tell him it’s not allowed. I can only give him wine that has turned bitter.” Samuels was standing close to Ceil, watching her and the holographic scene simultaneously.
“Is it real, or some kind of reenactment?”
“It’s real. We have learned to store certain moments in time.”
“And you were there?”
“I was there. Are you having doubts about what you’re seeing?”
She shook her head slowly. “No, I’m not. I know this is real, but I’m not sure how I know.”
“Watch now, Ceil. The man on the cross is asking me to end it. That’s within a Centurion’s discretion, as the condemned man nears the end.”
Ceil watched silently as the Centurion reached up with his spear and pierced the side of the crucified man. Instantly blood and other fluids spurted from the wound. The Centurion then used his spear to skive off a small piece of wood from the cross.
“Is that spear head the knife you’ve used to kill your victims?”
“Yes. I removed the shaft of the spear and made the remainder into a rather formidable looking dagger. Did Jennifer describe it to you?”
Ceil nodded. “I’ve seen enough. I believe you were there.”
“Good. I could show you much more, but I thought it appropriate that you witness the sources of the gifts I gave you. Now I want to tell you a story.”
Ceil leaned back in her chair. “I take it you could have given me any number of different items. Why did you choose these three?”
“They seemed well suited to capturing your imagination.”
She nodded silently.
“Would it surprise you to know that there are, among humankind throughout your world, about five hundred like me, and that my kind have been here for far longer than your history has been kept?”
“Of course it would surprise me. Are you gods or something?”
He smiled. She could see his almost perfect white teeth, and his confident smile, and she struggled not to become angry.
“To your species, it might seem so. Those of us who are here on your planet have grown to look like you, over the ages, but we aren’t actually very much like you at all. We have been here continuously for the past five millennia. Before that, we visited every few thousand years, to observe and to ‘help’, when we felt it was appropriate.”
“When was your first visit? Not yours personally, but your species?”
“Over one million years ago.”
Ceil stared silently at him, for a long minute. “Hard to believe.”
“I know. But at the time of our first visit, your species was quite primitive. Some of your ancestors were starting to walk upright, but with difficulty. You were….clumsy, at best. We offered some improvements that helped with that.”
“You taught us to walk?”
“In a manner of speaking. We introduced genetic changes that made your offspring better balanced, more agile. That came at the expense of brachiating arms for tree swinging, and a spinal column that was at peace with itself. Your environment liked those changes, and it selected those upright walkers over those who dragged their knuckles. Eventually, everybody was able to walk upright.”
“That took how long?”
“Almost five hundred thousand years.”
“I knew early hominids had brains no bigger than a chimp’s brain. Did you have something to do with changing that?”
“We did. That change was introduced about six hundred thousand years ago. It was our most rapid success. Within one hundred thousand years, everybody who was alive had the big brain.”
Ceil’s knowledge of evolution was rudimentary. She had read widely about it, but not deeply. She desperately wished Carl was awake and by her side. He would know exactly how to deal with this overload of information, and what questions to ask to clarify it.
“Why did that happen so quickly?”
“We hadn’t reckoned on the evolving nature of the beings we were helping. It turns out that your species doesn’t like having their less sophisticated cousins around. Obsolete means dead, to those you now know as Homo sapiens. As soon as you progressed to a new level, you killed the old level off.”
“You mean like the Neanderthals?”
“They were one of many subspecies to suffer that fate. You just haven’t been able to decode the physical remains of the others yet, because they are physically your twins. At some point, most of the emerging subspecies looked alike. Neanderthals didn’t, so you can easily identify them as a group that was selected for extinction. You killed them all off.”
“And you let us do that? Kill off one another until we were the only ones left?”
“We did. Remember, when all this genocide was going on, we were only visiting every two or three thousand years. Evolution was running amok then. We couldn’t tell who would be the eventual winner or, even more importantly, who should survive, so we let you work it out. All of the subspecies were savage. Brutality was second nature to you. It still is, under your glamorously thin veneers.”
“Are you still messing with our genes?”
“In a more measured way, yes.”
“So you control us, then?”
“No, not even close. We don’t control anything, or any one. Our role is to make minor genetic changes in a few individuals, and then to observe the result of those changes over time. Sometimes we hit a home run. Sometimes we strike out.”
“Then why are you in those scenes, with Columbus, and Joan, and Christ?”
“I was learning firsthand about you. You are consummately fascinating to us. So we are allowed to live amongst you, as long as we don’t interfere too much.”
“What about the women you killed?”
“You mean the women I’ve been harvesting?”
“What are you harvesting? Their souls?”
Samuels laughed out loud. “Nothing so metaphysical, I’m afraid. We’re recovering living organisms that have inhabited those bodies.”
“Like viruses? You’ve put viruses in us?”
“Something like viruses, only infinitely more intelligent. Do you know what a symbiotic relationship is?”
“When one species harbors or hosts another, and both benefit.”
Samuels smiled broadly. “I’m growing more confident that I was right about you, Ceil. Your definition is perfect. My species formed such a relationship with a tiny organism millions of years ago. These tiny creatures live inside us, not unlike the way viruses live in you. But that’s where the similarity ends. Have you even heard the expression ‘nanomachines’?”
Ceil searched her brain for the reference, and after a couple of seconds, came up with it. “Yeah. We’ve had development programs under way for a long time, maybe twenty years, to create tiny devices that can be grown organically for specific purposes. I seem to remember early applications for oil spills. And medical uses, where swarms of them could be introduced into a cancer, and they would feed on the cancer, but not on healthy tissue. Plus there was a lot of other uses projected. Some bio warfare stuff, where the organisms could be directed to consume biological weapons and make them harmless.”
Samuels was nodding. “That’s the idea. We formed a bond with a highly intelligent organism, more advanced than you’re referring to, about three million years ago. These groups of organisms needed a host body to live in, and our bodies were perfect for them. In return for allowing them to take up residence in our organs, they agreed to provide the host with an immune system that would essentially make disease, aging and death a memory. We’re not immortal. Before our liaison with the Garths, our lifespans were similar to yours. You see, the Garths are immortal. Not as individual organisms, but as a swarm, or a body, they never die. The swarm contains their identity, their memory, and their intelligence. Individuals are born and die every minute, but the entity is the swarm, which lives forever, as long as it has a live host to reside in.
“And we, as hosts, live incredibly long lives, compared to you. Thousands of years, sometimes tens of thousands.”
Ceil listened, but believed that Samuels’ words were more of a rehearsed speech than an attempt at a real dialogue.
“And when you’re shot through the heart?”
He nodded, smiling again. “We have a fluids pump, something like your heart, in another part of our bodies, but yes, the holes you put in me were repaired by the swarm. They left the surface evidence there long enough for your coroner to see it. By the time I was put in a drawer in the morgue, only those superficial wounds remained. Half an hour later, they were gone also.”
“And the eight women you killed? Sorry, harvested. Were they of your species?”
“No. They were human, but they were part of a program for genetic improvement. Such programs don’t always work, and then we are committed to recovering the swarms that have been put in the human hosts. The process of recovering the swarm from a host is, unfortunately, detrimental to the human host.”
“But why were you recovering them? Those women were alive.”
Samuels reached out and pulled Ceil to her feet. “Enough for one session. You need to digest what you’ve heard, and think about it. I’m going to have you sit in one of the chairs now, alongside your friends. When you awaken, the fatigue that is so obvious in your eyes will be gone, and we will continue. Come. This will be painless, I assure you.”
Thirty seconds later, Ceil Larkin, the only living human being to know the true story about the alien invaders and their symbiotic guests, was sleeping comfortably.
“I have a question. It’s basic, and I should have asked it before. Why are you here?” Ceil had awakened fully rested and brimming with new questions for her host.
Her sleep had allowed her unconscious to work at full tilt on his revelations to her. Now she wanted to know more about everything—her own place in this story, the reason for the aliens to be here at all, their future plans for the creatures on this planet, the nature of their home planet, how they traveled here. And on and on. She felt herself beginning to believe she might yet have a future beyond the next few hours.
“You look well rested. There is coffee on the table, and in the far corner there is a doorway to a bathroom.” Samuels had changed his clothes, and was now wearing beautifully tailored dark gray wool slacks, a light weight white cashmere sweater, and a Scottish plaid sport jacket in shades of brown, tan and orange. He looked freshly showered and shaved.
Ceil accepted the coffee gratefully. “I’ll visit the bathroom after my first cup of coffee. So why are you guys here? Five hundred of you for five thousand years? That seems like a pretty big commitment to me. You planning to exterminate humans and take over the planet?”
“Hardly. We’ve spent an eternity trying to bring you humans up a bit. If we planned on eliminating you, would we have done that? That doesn’t seem logical, does it?”
Ceil sipped her coffee and reflected on his answer. “No. Your philanthropy has been exceptional. So why are you doing us this great favor?”
“Perhaps we are conducting an experiment in socialization of primitive cultures?”
“For a million years?”
“Right. Seems a bit much to me as well. I suspect you could guess, if pressed.”
“You want this planet for future expansion.”
“Our long range plans are really long range. We believe we will ultimately have a much larger population here. But not for several centuries.”
“Why not now? Your technology is so far advanced over ours it wouldn’t take much effort on your part to move in.”
“That’s not our way. We have colonized other planets in the past, but never by force. We are not a warlike species.”
“And we’re too hostile for you?”
“So far you are. But we are working to change that. In our own way.”
“By breeding it out of us?”
“That’s part of it. Our genetic efforts have been progressively lowering your kind’s bellicosity. If you remember your history, the last several centuries have shown substantial improvement in your willingness to talk rather than kill. But there is still much to change.”
“Why not just clean out the war genes and start over?”
“Because your planet’s progress toward scientific knowledge is unprecedented in the known universe. We fear changing it too rapidly and losing the inquisitive side of your nature as a result. If one ignores the warlike side of your species’ attributes, there is much to admire about you. Your species is learning at a phenomenal rate. We want that to continue as we gentle the anti-social traits.”
“Hmm. Are you ready to tell me what my role in all this is?”
“Not quite. You’re still in the evaluation mode. What else would you like to know?”
“It occurs to me that a people as advanced as you are should not have to kill humans to recover your parasites. What’s that about?”
“Right, good question. As I told you, we have programs that are experimental. Several are running at any one time. The program that the eight women were involved in was our attempt to leapfrog gene modification so that we could speed up our gentling process. Its protocol was to select certain young women who possessed a very specific set of qualities. It isn't important to tell you what those were, but our approach was to screen the general population of teenage females in a certain geographical area, and then implant the modified genes into them. We also fed them small, highly focused swarms of Garths. The Garths’ presence was for two reasons. One, to be certain the autoimmune system of the recipients would not reject and kill the implanted genes. And two, to observe how the females’ organs changed to accommodate the new genetic instructions. Are you comfortable with the concept?”
Ceil believed that some of what Samuels said had a ring of truth to it but she was not convinced that it was all the truth. Nevertheless she would continue to play along.
“Not morally, I think. But intellectually, yeah. Instead of waiting through several generations of offspring to get the genetic makeup you wanted, you wanted to shorten the time frame by tweaking the mothers’ characteristics.”
“Essentially. This has been going on for about eighty years. In order to keep the impact low on a local area, we have moved the geographical source area every twenty years or so. We modified the eight women that you know about in the 1980s. They were part of a group of approximately two hundred who received the modified genes.”
“Why were these eight selected out? Does it have something to do with each of them producing an autistic child?”
Samuels raised his eyebrows. “Good, Ceil. You’ve been doing your homework. These eight gave birth to severely autistic children. That was not supposed to happen. The remainder of the women produced very intelligent and able offspring who excel at problem solving without violence. We are encouraged, but the failure rate is too high, and we don’t yet understand why. The Garths removed from those women are currently residing in artificial hosts while we interrogate them. We missed something in our screening. Before we offer this package to the next generation of young females, we must find out what characteristics caused the autism in the babies.”
“But my question was….”
“….why must we kill these mothers in such a seemingly brutal way to recover our symbiotic friends?”
“One would think we would have improved on this barbaric custom by now. But we haven’t. I won’t give you the full scientific explanation at this moment. Just an overview. Normally, if a host dies with a swarm still in residence, the Garths are able to communicate that fact to other swarms, who in turn inform us of the need for a recovery. The swarm in the dead host can survive for up to eight days, assuming no post mortem activities are performed on the host. Embalming kills the Garth. An autopsy removes a substantial part of the swarm in the organs. Our post mortem procedures are obviously quite different from yours.
“What seems like ritualistic murder to you is in reality an alarm and evacuation protocol for the swarm. The eight carefully placed stab wounds in essence warn the swarm that death is imminent and they must evacuate immediately or be left behind in the human host. On our planet, post mortem recovery has been automated, but the host body is totally destroyed as a result. The Garth came up with the procedure we use here, as a stopgap. We just never got around to improving it so that the women don’t die from it.”
“How long have you been using this method?”
“Eighty years, the length of the program.”
“Wow! For a species that doesn’t sanction aggressive behavior, that seems a little lax to me.”
Samuels was silent for an interval. “Sometimes our long range perspective makes us seem……irresponsible. This now appears to be one of those times. I feel embarrassed by our lack of sensitivity.”
“How sensitive was it to kill Logan and the others?”
“That point has been brought to my attention by my superiors. I may have erred in these cases. One can become insensitive over the centuries, I suppose. So says my direct supervisor. She claims I need retraining. The exception was Steven, of course. In your vernacular, Steven was a shit. I did that for you and Jennifer.” Samuels paused then, clearly reflecting on his recent actions.
Ceil used the pause to excuse herself and visit the bathroom Samuels had mentioned earlier. It turned out to be a large, very functional room, without frills, but with every amenity one might want in such a facility. She washed her face and hands and quickly returned to the room where Samuels waited.
During her bathroom break Ceil had concluded that Samuels was now lying to her, and she was having a problem digesting it all. As much as she would have liked to put a bullet in Samuels’ forehead, she understood that she had to continue to go along with the charade.
“Maybe this is a good time to ask why you wanted me here so badly. I think I may have misjudged you in the past. You’ve created situations that were very threatening to me, and I’ve been displaying human aggressiveness without a lot of gentler talents to mask it. Are you looking to give me my own swarm, Devon? Are you interested to see if your Garths can calm an old warrior like me? Or was I right in the first place, you want to be sure my particular set of genes doesn’t ever get cloned.”
“Good choice of words. Cloning is a viable procedure if you want to make a genetic duplicate. Several of my associates have assisted a few key scientists around the world in developing this procedure. The methods so far are crude, compared to work in other locations, but the work is advancing quickly. But to answer your question, no and no. No swarm for you, at least not yet. And we are definitely not interested in terminating your existence, now that we’ve found you. We have other plans for you, if we can come to terms. To put it in the simplest terms, we think you are uniquely qualified to help us. If you want to, of course.”
The furrow in Ceil’s brow deepened. “You want me to work for you? You put me through all this as a pre-employment test?”
“That’s one way of putting it.”
“And Jennifer and Carl are not targets of yours? And Silvia?”
“They are not targets. I suppose it’s time for you to know two additional bits of information. These will probably surprise you, Ceil. First, your niece is one of our selected gene mothers. She’s been the recipient of the modified gene package. She’s one of the two hundred. One of the few who haven’t yet produced an offspring.”
“And if her baby is born autistic? You going to kill her to recover her Garths?”
“After today’s discussion, I can assure you that no more of our gene mothers will be destroyed to recover their swarms. We are sorry for our callousness in that regard. Jennifer is safe.”
“So you say. What’s the other surprise? It must be about Carl.”
“It is. Carl is one of a long line of highly creative thinkers who have received a procedure we haven’t talked about yet. He was chosen very early in his life to receive a type of focused radiation in the area of his neo-cortex. As a result of that, he was able to use his brain much more effectively than he would have without it. He was very bright to begin with. We made him substantially brighter. It’s something we have done, very selectively, for about three thousand years.”
Ceil shook her head slowly, trying to grasp what she was hearing. “Does he know this?”
“No. None of our prodigies know.”
“What’s the trade-off?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The downside. What did he lose to gain this super-nerd status?”
“Good question. A little of his interpersonal skill. His needs for parenting and having a life partner are reduced. And he’s a little shorter than he might have been otherwise. An inch, maybe.”
“And you got?”
“A wizard who shortened World War Two by months, maybe years. We couldn’t interfere, but we saw it coming and we selectively enhanced certain already brilliant kids and young adults. We believe it helped.”
Ceil was having trouble with these revelations. “The Manhattan Project, was that yours?”
“Some of it.”
“Biological weapons. Did you give us those?”
“No. That your species developed for themselves.”
“Why did you tell me this?”
“There is one more fact you should be aware of.”
“I can hardly wait.”
“We have also had a long standing program to supplement the capabilities of certain thinkers and potential leaders, in order to assist them with their activities. This program is separate from the program that Carl is in.”
“How long standing?”
“Twenty five hundred years.”
“And how many people have had their capabilities supplemented?”
“I can’t say. But if you ask me about specific individuals, I will tell you if we aided them.”
“Any of the Caesars.”
“Joan of Arc.”
“An emphatic NO.”
The question and answer went on for some time. Ceil was surprised at some of them (Franklin—No, George Washington—Yes). Finally it came to an end. She simply ran out of names…and was now quite sure that Samuels had not been telling her the whole truth.
“That was very interesting, but why did I need to know this.”
“Because I have applied to our council to add you to the list.”
She was taken aback by his comment. “This is a joke? Are you making an alien, cosmic joke? Not funny, Devon.”
“I assure you, Ceil Larkin, we are not. The evaluation process is ongoing. You are about eighty per cent through it. So far, you have passed with flying colors.”