16 December 2012

Mission to the Stars

I may not have updated this blog for the last two months; it may be true that nearly every update for the last two years has been plugging a book; there may be 20 or so updates I've promised in the past to put up, easily that many books I've read without reviewing, and any number of interesting thoughts I've been wanting to blog about before ending up simply not having the time... but never let it be said that I don't post a Christmas story here every damn year.

Until I run out of ideas, of course.  You can let it be said then.  

This is the one I sent out with my Christmas cards last year... as ever, there's a new one this year, but unless you're on my Christmas card list you won't be reading it until 2013. This one features Imogen Tantry, the 27th-century Jesuit and pope-in-waiting who appears in Predating the Predators and "De Umbris Idearum".

Past stories, including this one, are archived on my website.



     On top of the massive conical tree, a five-pointed star glistens and winks.
     As the priests approach, it opens all its eyes in alarm and takes fright. It launches itself away through the branches, chittering as it swings from arm to arm to arm to arm to arm. Centuries ago, the first human naturalists to land on Brising were astonished to find the descendants of starfish living in trees.
     To any Brisingi animal, of course, the Earthman and woman now traversing the forest floor look strange and ugly, their four-limbed frame and bilateral symmetry as unnatural as those of the crosses they wear. So far their companion, a cleric of native Brisingi stock, has refrained from commenting on this.
     ‘This is an out-of-the-way place,’ observes Father Soranzo, one of the human pair. It is not clear whether he means the town or the planet. The clerical party has come directly from Forest Town, the planet’s centre of human settlement and de facto capital, where the buildings merely look like trees. Elsewhere, across most of Brising’s wooded landmass, the towns are distinguished only by how densely populated the trees are.
     ‘Miracles tend to happen in obscure places,’ observes his female colleague, ‘when they happen at all.’
     ‘Indeed.’ Soranzo latches onto the back end of the sentence. As an investigator for the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints his job is to strive energetically to disprove miracles, and he loves his work. ‘We have no proof that there’s been any miracle here. Even if we confirm the facts of the case, I’m still far from convinced there’s no scientific explanation.’
     Their hermaphrodite companion makes a fluting sigh of exasperation. ‘For the last time Father Soranzo, my people are complex organisms. We can’t regrow our limbs without divine aid, any more than you can.’
     To human eyes, the Right Reverend Hgnull, the Bishop of Forest Town and the senior Roman Catholic on Brising, looks very little like his-her ancient marine ancestors – themselves, of course, not true starfish but merely a close native analogue to the Earth echinoderm.
     If anything, the Bishop resembles an assemblage of different species of starfish grafted together, around a stocky central column. Nine sturdy legs carry this torso, while nine slender limbs branch from its top, each tipped with a circular, nine-fingered hand at whose centre is an eye. Brisingi are generally happy to do without clothes, but Hgnull affects a cloak-and-collar arrangement which approximates to the stole and clerical collar his-her human equivalent might wear. The bishop’s mottled skin is, as it happens, rather close to an episcopal purple.
     ‘Your Grace, I know.’ Soranzo holds up his hands placatingly. ‘Still, perhaps some kind of genetic throwback...’
     ‘That’s absurd, Father,’ snaps the woman who accompanies them. ‘If I laid an egg you’d consider it miraculous enough.’
     The Bishop giggles. Since his-her harmonious voice is produced by carefully modulating air flow through papullae, it’s a calculated noise rather than a spontaneous one. ‘Thank you, Monsignora,’ Hgnull says.
     ‘Nevertheless,’ Soranzo persists, ‘in some species of Earth starfish...’
     Monsignora Imogen Tantry tunes them out as best she can.


     Somehow, without asking for the honour and indeed rather to her dismay, Imogen Tantry has become the Pope’s go-to cleric for xenotheological issues – even when, as in this instance, they seem entirely routine apart from the involvement of alien believers.
     True, the appointment comes with its own (rather meaningless) courtesy title – and when the Holy Father (even a liberal reformer like Cosmas IX) commands, it is not for a mere priest to refuse her mission. Still, in all honesty the former Reverend Doctor (or, if one insisted, Mother) Tantry would prefer to have been left alone to her studies.
     Most recently, these have revolved around the simple but fundamental theological question: was Jesus’ the only Incarnation? If so (and this has certainly been the assumption of, well, all previous Catholic thought), then the question of why humanity, of all the species in the universe, was favoured with the sole manifestation of God in mortal form remains a baffling one.
     Through a combination of library research, fieldwork and buttonholing alien academics at conferences, Imogen has drawn up a list of 23 non-human religions whose fundamental principles are remarkably similar to those of Christianity and whose founders – living anywhere from a few centuries to three million years ago – were born or hatched or otherwise brought into existence in circumstances approximately analogous to those of the Christian Gospel narratives.
     The more unusual the alien biology, of course, the stranger the analogy becomes. Imogen’s favourite illustration of this is the Tripiktit legend of the male and female who, lacking as they did a spouse, were visited by an angelic thremale and conceived a holy larva. Certainly a virgin birth would mean little to the Brisingi, whose population centres are constantly awash with airborne male gametes and who regularly conceive with no thought whatsoever as to the providers’ identities.
     Not that the Brisingi have a Nativity-equivalent narrative – relatively few species do. This also irritates Imogen, as it effectively replicates the previous problem: why would God particularly favour these 24 sentient species above His other creations? If Tripiktit, why not Brisingi?
     One possibility, of course, is that every sentient species experiences an Incarnation event, but that only a minority result in organised religions. To Imogen, a loyal daughter of the Church, this thought is potentially troubling.
     Unfortunately, it has little connection with the matter in hand. Catholicism is by no means the dominant religion on Brising – there are few worlds where it is these days, certainly not Earth – but the planet has a well-established, majority-alien Catholic diocese. It was founded by the missionary Order of St Kloxoth, shortly after the planet came under the spreading hegemony of humanity, and has governed itself with humdrum banality ever since.
     The reports of Mhiskir’s visions, and the subsequent miraculous healings, are unprecedented on Brising but hardly elsewhere. There are standard routines for investigating them. Imogen feels, in point of fact, that the Holy Father is getting himself terribly worked up over nothing.


     Given how male germ cells saturate the air of Brisingi settlements, it is fortunate for human visitors that their smell is rather pleasant, somewhat like cloves. The intensity of the odour is the only real way to tell from ground level whether one is wandering through one of Brising’s cities or its countryside.
     The place the priests have come to visit is on a rising gradient of scent, the outskirts of a town whose surrounding trees are used as pasture for herds of food animals. The five-point treestar the party saw earlier was an outlier from such a herd.
     The Bishop scurries expertly up one particular tree, with a sudden turn of speed which forcibly reminds Imogen how ill-suited the Brisingi species is to ground-dwelling. A moment later, a platform is lowered on ropes, which she and Soranzo climb onto, to be raised up into the forest canopy.
     The clerics convene on a wide wooden deck slung between branches – the nearest thing to a building usually found in this kind of traditional settlement. At one end are an altar and a cross, flanked with conventional statues of Christ and the Blessed Virgin. A Brisingi priest greets them, along with a handful of his-her congregants. They vary widely in colour, as do all the species, but nearly all of them display the crouching, submissive posture which Imogen has come to associate with the Barren.
     Like most humans, most Brisingi retain their original sex throughout their life. Unlike humans, around a quarter of the population are male, biologically speaking, and a quarter female, with the remaining half being hermaphrodite. Tradition makes a different distinction, however.
     Before Brisingi scientists came to examine their own biology in detail, fertilisation was seen as a phenomenon without agency, as impersonal as the fog or rain. Nobody questioned the origins of the clovey scent surrounding their settlements, and the only difference they observed between the sexes was that three-quarters of the population – the females and hermaphrodites – regularly gave birth to young, whereas the remaining quarter did not.
     Even today, the pronouns in most Brisingi languages equate to ‘she’ for the ‘fertile’ three-quarters, and ‘it’ for the remaining males. In English, for the sake of politeness and (relative) accuracy, these are generally rendered as ‘he-she’ and ‘he’.
     Although it is now generally understood that the so-called ‘Barren’ contribute with the hermaphrodites to the common aerial genetic pool, nonetheless the planet’s less enlightened cultures continue to treat them as an underclass, untouchable lest their reproductive uselessness rub off on more fertile members of society. The worst regimes, with self-perpetuating idiocy, sterilise them.
     Often they are used as cheap labour, trafficked and indentured, ill-treated and abused. As in the past, in the Roman Empire and Imogen Tantry’s native India, it is largely to this caste that Christianity on Brising appeals.
     In this region, most of the Barren work as treestar-herds for rich farmers. Their employers harshly punish such crimes as laziness, theft or disrespect, wherever (and however inaccurately) they perceive them. This explains one especially noticeable thing about this small congregation, which is how many of its members are missing one or more arms.
     In an eighteen-limbed species this is of course a less drastic punishment than it would be among humans, but to Imogen’s eyes it still appears barbaric.
     This despite the fact that all the arms which have been thus removed are now quite visibly growing back.


     The Bishop ushers forward one of the Barren, a ruddy, stippled individual whose smaller stature betrays his relative youth. His missing arm has now grown back to nearly two-thirds of its original length, its end already circled with stubby fingers.
     ‘This,’ Hgnull tells the humans, ‘is Mhiskir. He was brought here half a year ago, from the other side of the continent, then indentured as a treestar-herd.’
     It was Mhiskir whose vision started the current spate of miraculous healings in this outcast community. It was (if the Order of St Kloxoth, who still take an interest in the planet, can be believed) a vision of the Blessed Mhust, the first Brisingi to convert to Catholicism and a hot contender for sainthood. The Kloxothans, whose patron was also of the extraterrestrial persuasion, precipitated the priests’ current mission on Brising.
     It soon becomes clear, however, that the account which reached the Order was deficient in certain vital respects.
     ‘Was it the Blessed Mhust you saw, Mhiskir?’ Father Soranzo asks, getting straight to the point.
     ‘I suppose,’ Mhiskir says. The lad is shy, and speaks no English. The local priest acts as his interpreter. ‘It was a Brisingi, all shining with light. I suppose it must have been.’
     ‘Who did you tell about it first?’ Soranzo asks.
     ‘I went straight to the treestar pens and told my boss,’ Mhiskir says. ‘But he-she said I was wicked and arrogant to say such things. Then he-she chopped off my arm.’
     Imogen winces. Then, intrigued, she asks, ‘Why wicked? Is your boss a Catholic, Mhiskir?’
     ‘Not him-her,’ the Brisingi says. ‘No way. He-she didn’t like what the shining Brisingi said to me.’
     ‘Which was?’ asks Soranzo. A look of some significance passes between Mhiskir, the native priest and the bishop. Then one of the parishioners scampers away in search of something, and Hgnull turns his-her eyes towards Imogen.


     ‘They didn’t know what to do at first,’ the Bishop says. ‘When the story of the healings got out, the priest confided in me, and I contacted His Holiness directly. I requested that he send you specifically, Monsignora.’
     The human clerics look at him-her in bafflement. Then Soranzo repeats, ‘What did it say? What did the vision say to you, Mhiskir?’
     The local priest translates again. ‘That I would have a child,’ Mhiskir says simply, and all along Imogen’s arms the hairs stand on end.
     Mhiskir continues. ‘I asked, “How can I? Surely you know I’m Barren.” “But God will find a way,” the figure said.’
     The parishioner returns with great care, supporting a basket in three arms. Mhiskir takes it and rocks it, making gentle shushing noises, before showing it to the humans.
     ‘It’s not the Blessed Mhust who’s been healing people,’ Mhiskir tells them. ‘It’s him.’
     Nestled in cushioned fabric lies an arm. A Brisingi limb, the same dappled red as Mhiskir’s own. At one end fingers flex, and the hand’s central eye regards them solemnly.
     At the other – the plane where it was sliced from Mhiskir’s shoulder – a new torso is growing. Already the columnar form of a Brisingi, with nine legs and eight other, tiny, fragile waving arms, is present in miniature.
     ‘Oh my,’ says Imogen.
     This child was born – not that that can really be the word – in animal pens, after his father had made a long journey. His birth came with its own stigma of implausibility – the child of a male, a virgin birth on a world with no concept of virginity. It is impossible, surely, for this creature to exist.
     No, not impossible. Miraculous.
     Imogen looks at her two companions: Hgnull, quivering now with this revelation of the great secret, Soranzo looking simply dumbfounded.
     Far above their heads, a treestar chitters. It is almost as if the three of them followed it here.
     ‘I’m very sorry,’ Imogen says politely. ‘I’m afraid we haven’t brought a thing to give him.’

© Philip Purser-Hallard 2011
Merry Christmas, one and all.