By Philip Purser-Hallard
‘Do you have any religious affiliation?’ the customs officer asks, in a tone too bored to display any remnant of embarrassment.
‘Religious affiliation? Oh no, nothing like that,’ replies the Reverend Monsignora Dr Imogen Tantry, S.J., the fingers in the left-hand pocket of her slacks devoutly crossed.
‘Are you carrying religious artefacts or relics, or scriptures or sacred texts in any format?’
‘Certainly not,’ she says, praying that the encryption applied by Brother Quelle of the Congregation for Pontifical Intelligence is opaque enough to screen her palmpad’s data from whatever quantum scan the customs desk may currently be performing on her hand-luggage.
‘That’s good. Because it’s my duty to warn you,’ the officer continues, still reciting from his inner script, ‘that all expressions of religion, public or private, are strictly illegal on the rootworlds. Those convicted may be subject to corporal punishment and a prison term.’
‘So I’ve heard,’ Imogen responds. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not interested in all that nonsense.’ The Society of Jesus takes a pragmatic view of deception by its members, when dictated by a higher necessity. Although the man she has followed here is not a Jesuit, she supposes he must have justified his answers in much the same way.
‘Well, then, Dr Fidele,’ says the customs officer, passing back her fake identity card, ‘welcome to the Eleventh Ias’par Rootworld.’
Imogen nods gravely, and makes her way towards the spaceport terminal’s exit.
The spaceport terminal is controlled by Tangential Spacelines and adapted to the needs of its mostly human staff and transit passengers. Even so, the shops and offices of the concourse are interspersed with soil-floored solaria for the use of local customers and employees – arrangements similar to those the Halogen Dawn, which brought Imogen here from Jupiter’s Galilean Transit Hub, made for its Ias’par passengers.
In another respect, though, the Ias’par influence is everywhere. By Earth’s calendar today is 24 December, and anywhere in human space Imogen would expect to see snow-filters applied to the shop-window displays, foil decorations hanging from the fittings in the bars and cafés, a lit-up tree in the concourse. The Halogen Dawn had such ornamentation in abundance, its servitor drones being rather excessive in their seasonal enthusiasm. As on most worlds, those commemorations were resolutely secular, with Imogen’s fellow-passengers giving barely a thought to their underlying significance.
When the Ias’par banned the import of religion, though, they were thorough. And trees… trees are a particularly sensitive topic.
Outside the terminal, it is altogether clearer that Imogen is on an alien world. Though Kar’sept City is a major nexus of interspecies trade and commerce, Imogen’s route to the University passes few high-rise offices, or indeed buildings with recognisable roofs and floors. Most of the workplaces are more like what she would consider walled gardens than buildings. Inside them, the adult male Ias’par go about their business efficiently enough, their limbs swaying busily and crowns rustling with purpose, with none of the leisureliness a human might associate with such places.
They crowd the streets, too, towering over Imogen, their roots probing gracefully across the compacted-soil sidewalks. Occasionally they break into whirling runs after the flatbed trams that ply the city. For many of them it is that time of the year, and Imogen is occasionally showered by dry leaves whose autumnal tones are rather spoiled for her by seeing them shed like dandruff by passing pedestrians.
The bushes shiver and twitch as Imogen passes, and in the distance she sees a creeping vine slither up and over a wall. Aside from visitors of human and other sentient species, she sees no animals anywhere; the Ias’par’s original biosphere simply never evolved them, and the worlds they colonise are first thoroughly scoured of any native life. Instead, scraggy perennials scurry from soil-bed to soil-bed, and flocks of winged seed-pods ply the air.
This being her first visit to a Ias’par rootworld, Imogen also sees for the first time, at a distance, the sessile females of the species. All are rooted firmly in their harem-groves behind the walls of private dwellings, but the most affluent males – those who can afford the best security arrangements – display their wives and concubines on artificial hillocks for the envy of passers-by. Many of them are gravid, visibly fruiting with the seedlings they will scatter in their death-throes.
This being a major population centre, the infants are gathered up regularly and planted in communal nurseries where they can grow sociably together, chattering and playing catch and swapping toys – until the fateful days of puberty, when the males will gain the ability to uproot themselves and walk, and the females will be prepared for the short, unhappy and ultimately explosive reproductive careers that await them. For them, their greatest hope is that they will be proven infertile and transplanted back to the nurseries, to act as aunts to future generations of seedlings.
The Ias’par are among the most intensely patriarchal societies in the known galaxy, but given their biology it is difficult to see how else they could have developed.
‘So, welcome to the Planet of the Atheist Tree-Men,’ says Dr Muriel Xue, Imogen’s contact at Kar’sept City University, as she busies herself in the rudimentary kitchen of her staff bungalow. ‘Don’t mind the tap-water, it’s fine once it’s been strained and boiled. The Ias’par can’t imagine why we’d prefer it without all the nutrients. I drink tea a lot these days.’
‘I’ll take your word for it,’ Imogen replies, rather stiffly.
Dr Xue, a lapsed but still reasonably sympathetic Catholic, was among those human expatriates who Father Dmitri Larsen-Goya contacted on his arrival on Rootworld 11 a month before. He claimed an interest in xenoanthropology, and volunteered his time to help collate her research. After his disappearance Dr Xue checked her files to see what he had actually been doing, and immediately put a call through to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Extrahuman Churches.
The academic is thus in part responsible for Imogen, as Pope Cosmas IX’s xenotheologian-at-large, missing Christmas at home in favour of her current mission for the Holy Father, an altruistic intervention which Imogen is doing her utmost not to resent her for necessitating.
‘I thought I knew the type,’ Dr Xue explains as she pours tea for them both. ‘They’re usually much younger, though. They turn up full of zeal and holy purpose, convinced they’re the ones to finally win the heathen devils for Jesus – or Mohammed or Buddha or Beyoncé as it may be – or get martyred in the attempt. I think a lot of them would prefer the second option, to be frank. To them the Ias’par are just a challenge, whereas in fact they’re a prime example of where that sort of thinking will get you.’
Imogen nods. ‘Most of the species I’ve known who lack natural religious impulses find faith baffling, but they’re usually quite tolerant of it, indulgent even. I haven’t encountered one so actively hostile before.’
She knows the reason for the Ias’par’s antipathy, of course. Thankfully the Catholic Church was not involved, but it is not a story that does much credit to her more distant co-religionists.
Four centuries ago, a far-flung human colony found itself sharing a stellar system with one of the outlying Ias’par branchworlds. A faction among the colonists was thrilled by the opportunity this represented: as it happened, the human outpost was partially funded by a Protestant megachurch back on Earth, and its mission parameters included an earnest injunction towards xenoevangelism. Invited on a goodwill visit to the branchworld, the human colonists took with them a consignment of Bibles – expensive, old-fashioned King James versions, 2D-printed on real paper – to distribute among the locals.
The Ias’par had no native religion, and their verbal culture had transitioned directly from oral tradition to electronic storage without the intervention of a printed medium. At first the recipients accepted these unfamiliar gifts with polite puzzlement. It was only once one of their scientists analysed a page and discovered exactly what paper was that the visit blew up into a major interplanetary incident.
Understandably, the Ias’par reacted much as Imogen might on being presented with a book bound in humanoid skin. The colonists’ hasty explanation that the trees used to provide the wood-pulp had been non-sentient, indeed not even mobile, did little to ameliorate the perceived insult.
To make matters worse, one of the more scholarly of the Ias’par went so far as actually to read – or rather, to listen to a scanned version of – one of the Bibles, and reported, shocked, that it appeared to be an account of a holy war waged by humanity against trees, after a tree was falsely blamed for their initial fall from their deity’s favour. Generations later, hundreds were massacred to build a vessel to preserve the lives of mere animals in a flood, whose end was signified by a twig torn from yet another hapless tree – and the New Testament was worse still.
It turned out the Christians’ humanised deity was a carpenter, a word synonymous with ‘butcher’ as far as the Ias’par were concerned, and he harboured a particular antipathy towards those of the arboreal persuasion. He talked of condemning trees for bearing bad fruit, and on one occasion even cursed one he judged to be lacking. At his triumphal procession severed branches were laid as a tribute for his pack-animal to trample. That a tree had been instrumental in his death seemed to the Ias’par scholar to be poetic justice, though it had doubtless provided more fuel for the humans’ arboricidal jihad.
The human missionaries were expelled at once, and their adopted world did not survive the Ias’par’s subsequent orbital bombardment. Meanwhile the news of this repugnant alien philosophy, quickly reaching the Ias’par rootworlds, poisoned human-Ias’par relations for generations, and eventually hardened into the deep-rooted hostility to all varieties of religion still displayed by the Ias’par today.
The branchworld in question was promoted to rootworld status about two hundred years ago; Imogen is standing on it now. Evidently Fr Larsen-Goya hoped to undo the damage at its source.
It turns out, though, that Muriel Xue thinks there may be an additional wrinkle. ‘Actually, I’m not sure they’re completely impervious to religion,’ she suggests. ‘Some of the urban legends I’ve been studying suggest the opposite, in fact.’ Though her official research here is rather more staid, Dr Xue has a sideline in recording the scurrilous and subversive stories the Ias’par women pass between themselves, conveying them from nursery to harem-grove and sometimes back again as individuals are transplanted – interactions which amount to an alternative oral culture among the Ias’par, going largely unheard by the males.
‘Be that as it may,’ says Imogen, ‘Fr Larsen-Goya came here hopelessly unprepared, and wholly against the standing orders of the Curia and the advice of the Bishop of Europa. From what she tells me, a former curate of Larsen-Goya’s was recently awarded the Medal of St Kloxoth for his missionary work among the Veliuonans, and Larsen-Goya wanted one of his own. He seems to think that if he converts a few Ias’par to Catholicism the Holy Father will hand him a decoration too.’ She sighs. ‘Have you heard where they’re keeping him?’
Dr Xue shakes her head. ‘That’s the thing, though. I had lunch with the Consul’s husband yesterday. As far as the Consulate have been told, Larsen-Goya’s not been arrested. The City authorities always report that sort of thing to the Consul straight away – they always have in the past, at least. Either this time they’re playing it close to their trunks for some reason, or something else has happened.’
‘But he’s been missing more than three weeks,’ Imogen protests. Since the start of Advent, as she recalls. ‘Where could he have gone?’
‘Well, I’ve had a thought about that,’ Dr Xue says. ‘I’m not sure it’s going to be helpful, though.’
The stone wall is high, taller than all but the oldest Ias’par. Even in the dark of the rootworld’s twilight Imogen can see that it is as roofless as most of their structures. It has no windows – with the open sky above such conveniences are optional, and based on Muriel Xue’s conjectures its users must prefer privacy. The door is of heavy metal and comes up only to a normal Ias’par’s crown-height. According to the Kar’sept City zoning registry – which Imogen was able to hack into with great ease, thanks to the impressively proactive data-security package Brother Quelle installed on her palmpad – the site is registered as the meeting-house of something called the Wormwood Club. The term is meaningless in the local language (the Ias’par biome having produced neither artemisia trees nor indeed worms), but not, of course, to readers of the Book of Revelation.
As Imogen circles the wall now, she sees that the clubhouse’s most exceptional feature is its shape. Basically rectangular, with its length aligned along the planet’s east-west axis, it has two smaller rectangles protruding from its longer edges, to the north and south. It is, in short, cruciform.
It is also occupied. Imogen, already aching from the standing tram-ride from the University, creeps closer through the offputtingly affectionate undergrowth, to where she can hear the rattling rustle of Ias’par speech. It is, as far as she can tell, a single voice – speaking with some intensity, but quietly, so as not to be overheard from the street. She thumbs an icon on her palmpad, and a translation is relayed directly to her earbud.
‘– and what was that manger made from, my brothers? Was it brick? Was it steel? No, it was wood – sliced from the bodies of slain trees, then nailed together by carpenters. Those shepherds – what did they carry? Crooks, brothers, hooked sticks made from the limbs of trees, amputated then stripped of twigs and leaves. That frankincense, that myrrh – resin, my friends, bled from the wounds of trees to scent the bodies of their human tormentors. Even at his birth, their saviour demanded the wood and sap of our arboreal brethren as tribute. And still, each year at that time, the humans celebrate by abducting an innocent tree, and dragging it inside a human dwelling as a trophy. I tell you, my brothers –’
Imogen tuts, and thumbs off the translator.
Not an abandoned Christian sect, then. Rather, these Ias’par apparently represent a new dendrocentric religious movement, loosely incorporating elements of Christian myth and iconography in much the same way as Islam or Mormonism – or, for that matter, Satanism.
It was only to be expected, considering the visceral response the human settlers’ conventional Christianity evoked among these people.
After what Dr Xue told her, Imogen had been hoping that Dmitri Larsen-Goya was safe, hidden away by this Ias’par congregation. Now it seems far more likely that the priest’s intended flock have kidnapped him with sinister, perhaps even fatal, intent. If he is alive at all, he is surely within these walls, helpless against their ministrations. It seems that Imogen is conscientiously obliged to mount a rescue.
Imogen crouches down further into the undergrowth’s caress as angry male Ias’par spill from the mock-church, embroiled in a whole plethora of blazing arguments. Her palmpad can only relay snatches of their furious clattering, enough to get a flavour of the debate.
‘– planted himself beneath this Bodhi tree and was enlightened! The tree gave him wisdom! We can enlighten the humans too! We must –’
‘– these Dryads are supposed to be gods who are human and tree! The Yakshis and Kodama as well! How can you explain –’
‘– ceremonies in sacred groves! The Druids, the Vestal Virgins, the Gothar – all of them worshipped among trees! In which case –’
‘– but the Iroko is the house of the Orishas, and an Orisha itself! The tree is a god and the dwelling-place of all the gods, so –’
‘– a single great tree that supports the world – it supports all the worlds – its name is Yggdrasil! These Norse humans once worshipped it – we must too!’
Imogen waits patiently until the congregation have dispersed, still quarrelling. With luck, the material she uploaded from her pad to the church’s in-house network will keep them exegeting for years.
She sighs. In theory, of course, the Catholic Church would take an even dimmer view of giving the Ias’par information about humanity’s false religions than it does of ministering to them in its own name. It is a grave sin, one which could imperil her soul as well as theirs.
As a Jesuit, though, Imogen knows the value of pragmatism. And it is hardly as if the Ias’par have taken much of value from Christianity – they might as well be allowed to look at the alternatives.
She checks her palmpad. The Halogen Dawn is still in the system. Its last shuttle leaves in an hour and a half; the spaceport is a half-hour tram ride away. Provided Fr Larsen-Goya is fit to walk, she can still have him off Rootworld 11 and back inside human jurisdiction by Boxing Day. By Epiphany the two of them should be in Rome confessing to the Holy Father.
Assuming, of course, that her fellow priest is still alive.
Imogen steps into the enclosure. A long groan greets her, and she quickens her step towards the rear of its open-air nave. In the dark she can make out a murky human-shaped figure. She wonders how badly he has been hurt.
She activates her palmpad’s light-field, and immediately struggles to suppress an uncharacteristic urge to giggle.
‘Are you injured, Father?’ Imogen asks Dmitri Larsen-Goya solicitously, her voice only slightly wobbling.
The man groans again. His arms and legs have been bound to a metal frame. He stands amidst a pile of gift-wrapped boxes. He looks intact, though his dignity most certainly is not.
The cleric has been tastefully wreathed with gold and silver tinsel, and draped with a string of coloured lights. Glittering baubles dangle from his elbows, wrists and fingers, and on his head has been placed a shiny silver star.
Imogen finds herself reminded that God has a sense of humour.
Fr Larsen-Goya came to the Eleventh Ias’par Rootworld hoping to earn a medal from his human superiors. In the event, though, it is the trees themselves who have decorated him.