As well as writing fiction, Arlen Feldman is a software engineer, entrepreneur, maker, and computer book author—useful if you are in the market for some industrial-strength door stops. Some recent stories of his appear in Metaphorosis, Ink Stains, The Literary Hatchet, and the anthologies Transcendent and The Chorochronos Archives. His website is cowthulu.com.
by Arlen Feldman
Umtami watched impassively as the object descended. This was the fourth such flying object he had seen, although it was the first to come so close to the ground. There had been much speculation in the Council as to the source and purpose of these mysterious floating objects, but they seemed “made”, which meant that someone had constructed them for a reason. They looked, at least to Umtami, a little like the river vessels of his people. Vessels, perhaps, that carried people in the air.
Well, he would know soon enough.
As the vessel—now a vessel in his mind—dropped lower, stubby little legs popped out from underneath, and although quite some distance away, Umtami could see the ground swirling beneath it, as though there was a mini-storm. Finally, the vessel reached the ground and stopped moving.
Several of the other villagers had come out to watch by now, standing behind him, waiting for him to make a decision. He gauged the distance to the vessel—about a quarter day’s walk. He could get there before day’s end, but could not return until the following day. The prudent thing to do would be to wait. But…
“I will go alone. Jol—get my spear.”
There was a collective sucking in of breath, but no one said anything—he had already heard the Council speak, and now, as leader, he had to make the decision. But to take a weapon—to risk offending a potential guest, or worse, to come as hostile when no formal challenge had been made—Umtami was risking the honor of the village.
Jol returned, gently cradling the tall spear. It was decorated along its length with hunting scenes, and had a long, sharp point made of flint. Umtami took the weapon, then turned to face the villagers.
“I will leave the spear before approaching the… the vessel. I will offer gifts.” He nodded to his wife, Sari, who had already anticipated him, and was carrying a pack containing supplies, and a smaller sack containing a collection of jewelry and blanket-work, which were the most valuable gifts that could be given aside from livestock. “But I will have the spear close by in case of need.”
Several of the Council men, all elders, nodded at this wisdom. In the Council, they had argued back and forth as to the nature of the flying objects, but had not reached consensus. If they had all agreed that there was no threat, then Umtami would not have taken a weapon, but some were not sure, so he would balance the risk.
He took the pack and the sack from his wife and shouldered them, then touched her affectionately on the cheek. The contents of the sack represented significant wealth—almost impossible to recover since they had suffered so many bad years. He patted Jol on the back. Jol was his second son, almost old enough to take the tests of manhood. Umtami looked him over for a moment, proud of the fine, strong boy. Then he deliberately turned back to the elders.
“I will be no more than two days. I may return earlier with guests. Prepare accordingly.” Then he put the village behind him and began to walk.
By the time Umtami reached the object, the sun was beginning to set, and he could see it reflected like fire on the object’s side. For a moment, he wondered if the vessel was made of water, which was the only thing he had ever seen that reflected things in that way, but it was too solid to be water.
He carefully hid his spear outside the clearing where the vessel was sitting, and walked to within thirty paces of it, holding out his hands, obviously empty and unthreatening. He did not wish to scare any visitor. Then he stopped, and waited.
The object was reflective in places, dark in others, the edges dirty like rock. It was about sixty paces long and had several protuberances along its length. A faint hum came from it, like the deep sound from within an empty, growling stomach, and for a moment Umtami considered whether this was indeed a creature, as some in the council had suggested. But it was too solid, too angular to be alive. “Yes,” he thought, “a vessel.”
“What’s he doing?”
“Just standing there with his hands out.” Michaels looked again at the figure on the small monitor, then looked up at the priest, a smile tugging at his rough features, “Perhaps he thinks the ship is a god and is praying to it!”
The priest ignored the other man’s sarcasm. “I think he is trying to show us that he is unarmed and not a threat to us.”
“Not a threat to us?” Michaels eyed the control console in front of him, including the wide array of weaponry at his disposal.
“He’s never seen a spaceship before. He doesn’t know about its weapons. I think he is just being polite. That’s a good sign.”
“Yeah. Probably his buddies are just out of sight, waiting for us to come out so they can rip out our bowels for dinner. No offense, but while you’re doing your missionary thing, I think I’m going to hang out here.”
Father Dumont smiled gently at the pilot. He’d been with Michaels for long enough to know that the bear-sized man was unlikely to be afraid of the figure outside—he just always seemed embarrassed around overt references to religion. Although technically a member of the Church, Michaels generally claimed to be agnostic. For the umpteenth time, Dumont wondered why the pilot kept volunteering for these missions. Not his business though. If Michaels wanted to tell him, he would.
“That’s fine. Can I breathe out there?”
Michaels tapped a few keys on the computer. “Mostly. You’ll need a filter, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to take a gun with you.”
Dumont tapped the Bible in his hand. “I’ll stick with this, thanks.” Slipping the small filter into his nose, he moved to the door.
Umtami watched as a previously solid piece of the vessel suddenly slid upwards, revealing a bright, almost blinding light. A lesser man might have taken a step backwards, but Umtami held his ground. A moment later, a figure appeared in the doorway, then stepped out.
Away from the light, Umtami could make out more details. It was a man like any other, short, balding, dressed strangely—black clothing covering him from foot to neck, with just a bit of white at the neck. He was holding some objects that Umtami could not identify. As Umtami watched him, he put these items on the ground, then held out his hands in a gesture like Umtami’s. Umtami nodded at him.
“Welcome, stranger, to the land of the Tamirra. I am Umtami.”
The man smiled slightly, then shook his head from side to side. A string of words came from him, but they made no sense to Umtami. As with many of the other tribes, they obviously did not share a language. Umtami slapped his palm against his chest and said his name “Umtami.”
“Umtami,” agreed the stranger, pointing, then patted himself on the chest, “Father Dumont.”
“Farrer Tumon.” Umtami did his best to repeat the strange name. He was now on familiar ground. This was a visitor from another tribe—maybe a trader, maybe in search of a wife. It would take a while before they could communicate enough to determine that, but he would offer gifts and share a meal with the stranger tonight, and tomorrow he would take him back to the village.
It was several weeks before Father Dumont realized that Umtami had given up his own hut for the comfort of the two visitors. The natural, unstudied kindness and generosity of the Tamirra people was one of the first things he identified about them.
The other was the crushing misery under which they lived. Dumont’s mastery of their language was poor, but it sounded like some sort of natural disaster had wiped out the herds they relied on, and made water scarce. The Tamirra had migrated a dozen times to try and improve their lot, but without success.
If ever a people were in need of a missionary’s help, he thought, it was here and now.
That evening, Dumont and Michaels were sitting near the fire along with Umtami, his son Jol, and several other Tamirra. They had shared an evening meal of a type of oat cake, and some meat that Dumont didn’t want to try and identify. Michaels had tried to donate some of the ship’s stores, but had been gently rebuffed—apparently, it would bring shame to not be able to provide for guests.
Michaels was chatting comfortably with Jol. To Dumont’s surprise, it turned out that Michaels had been trained in linguistics in the military. Michaels had also taught Jol a few words of English, and the young man used them at every opportunity.
“Do you have any idea where there might be better hunting?” Michaels asked.
“We have sent runners to all of the closest tribes, who have done the same. Perhaps we will hear good news.”
Michaels nodded. “Smart. You can cover the whole land that way.”
“How long ago?” Dumont kept his sentences short, but he thought that he got it right.
Jol shrugged. “Many hundreds of days. Most have returned, but some have not. They may bring good news.”
Dumont smiled, and said in English, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”
Michaels rolled his eyes, but at Jol’s request, translated the words. He had trouble with the word prayer, since there was no equivalent in the Tamirra language. After a lengthy discussion, which Dumont could not remotely follow, Michaels gave up. Umtami and the older Tamirra looked troubled.
“Will all the tribes cooperate with the search?” asked Dumont, trying to change the subject.
“Most,” said Umtami. “The Setaghossi and the Hatari choose to work alone.”
Jol grinned at that. “Not that there are many Setaghossi left.”
“Jol!” Umtami sounded shocked.
Michaels asked Umtami what happened with the Setaghossi. Umtami looked embarrassed.
“The Setaghossi stole from the other tribes. Food. Livestock. People. We had no choice. When there is a threat that can be met, it must be met. But,” he caught Jol’s eyes, “we do not rejoice in such actions. We do what can be done, and no more.”
Jol looked down, his almond features turning red.
Dumont realized that he’d understood the entire speech—he was far from fluent, but he thought he could communicate clearly enough now, particularly if Michaels helped.
“Umtami,” he said. “With your permission, I’d like to talk to the whole village tomorrow—to explain why I’m here.”
Technically, what he’d said was “Give you me allowed, me talk to all peoples after rise sun, tell me you here why.” However, the villagers understood his meaning, and were too polite to comment on his lack of fluency. Michaels, though, had to turn away and cover his mouth to prevent himself from laughing out loud.
Umtami gave his assent with a slight bow. Dumont was both elated and terrified—this was his fifth mission, but his first as the lead representative of the Church. And none of the others had been first-contacts. If he messed up, all of these people could be lost.
Most of the men of the village were present at the meeting, along with some of the older boys and, to Dumont’s surprise, a number of the women as well. In the light he saw how gaunt most of them were. There were very few children in the village, and the few he saw were listless and had toothpick-thin arms and legs.
He took a deep breath, then smiled at the crowd. “Thank you for coming.” Umtami stood and bowed to the priest, then resumed his seat.
“And thank you all for your kind hospitality. You are a wonderful people. But there is something missing from your life.”
Dumont said all this in English, and let Michaels translate for him. He’d been a little offended when Michaels had suggested that Dumont might not be understood, but he’d let himself be convinced. After all, this way, Michaels, for all his professed disbelief, was directly assisting, and might end up a convert himself.
It took a moment for Michaels to catch up. The crowd listened with polite interest.
“In our world, we have learned that you cannot live a full life if you do not accept God and his forgiveness for your sins.”
Michaels gave him a look. In reality, a large number of people on his world had not learned that particular lesson, or had chosen to ignore it. Dumont nonetheless felt justified in making the general statement, and with the slightest of shrugs, Michaels went ahead and translated. He had to use the word God without translation, and for sins, used the phrase bad actions.
Dumont expected questions at this point, and had answers prepared. However, there was no particular reaction. He went ahead as though someone had asked.
“God is the eternal being who created the universe and everything in it, including me and all of you.”
To Dumont’s satisfaction, a susurrus spread through the gathering after Michael’s translation. He let it continue. Much of the conversation was between the members of the council, which seemed to be a group of elder advisors to Umtami. After a few minutes, Umtami rose.
“Farrer Tumon. We would very much like to meet your friend God. We think he may be able to tell us where to find fresh water and the herds that have disappeared.”
Dumont glanced at Michaels for help, but the pilot had sucked his lips into his mouth to prevent himself from laughing. Dumont glared at him and Michaels looked away for several moments, then looked back, mostly in control of himself, although his eyes were dancing.
“God is not in this world. Or any other,” Dumont finally said.
Umtami waited for the translation, then bowed again and sat, disappointment clearly visible on his face.
There was a clear way prescribed by the Church to explain God and the Bible to those unfamiliar with the concepts—methods honed in the eighteenth century on Earth. Dumont was grateful for the structure and he dutifully worked his way through those pieces of the sermon that seemed the most appropriate.
While waiting for Michaels to translate each section, Dumont looked into the eyes of his audience. He hoped to see dawning realization and excitement, but mostly saw confusion. He sighed.
There was a lot more murmuring from the council, then Umtami once again rose.
“Farrer Tumon. We do not understand all you have said, but you tell us that God is responsible for everything that happens? Even bad things?”
This was an easy one—the question asked by every precocious child in Sunday school. The language barrier and his own lack of fluency got in the way though, so he resorted to some of the rote arguments he was given in seminary.
“God created everything to be good, but man rebelled,” he said. “God doesn’t cause evil to happen, but He can control the result of evil.”
Michaels stared at him, then shrugged, and translated. Somehow Dumont knew that he was failing here, but he wasn’t quite sure how. Perhaps he was trying to cover too much too soon.
Against expectations, though, Umtami seemed satisfied by this answer.
“Perhaps,” said Dumont, “we should leave it there for today.”
Umtami bowed. Slowly the crowd began to dissipate.
Michaels and Father Dumont started the long walk back towards the ship. Michaels needed to check on things, and Dumont just wanted to get away. They’d been walking for a good hour before Dumont finally spoke.
“That could have gone better.”
Michaels shrugged, keeping his eyes on the ground.
“Come on Michaels—you were dying to say something while I was preaching. Go ahead—spit it out.”
Michaels didn’t speak for several minutes. Dumont didn’t rush him.
“Father,” he finally said. “You know that I don’t really share your beliefs, but I know that your intentions are good.”
Dumont’s lips twitched slightly. “Thank you. I think.”
Michaels didn’t smile back. “It’s just—these are a very practical people. They see a problem—they don’t complain, they don’t look for outside help—they just do whatever needs doing. I’m worried that religion will…will get in their way.”
Dumont bit back a quick retort. When he finally replied, it was in measured tones, but his whole body was taut.
“These are a wonderful people. And they are going through terrible trials. I cannot ease their burden in this world, but I can make sure that they are ready for the next.”
Michaels closed his eyes for a second, then said, quietly, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Dumont’s eyebrows shot up. “Romans 8:18.”
“A few things have stuck in my head over the years.”
“Then you understand what I’m trying to do?”
Again, there was a long pause, as if Michaels was assembling his words carefully. The two men trudged on in silence. They were more than half-way to the ship.
“I think,” said Michaels, eventually, “that your intentions are very good. I just wonder if these people need more practical assistance. In this world, I mean.”
“I’m open to suggestions,” said Dumont, slightly snappishly. He sighed, then continued more evenly. “We don’t seem to have the right resources to help them, and I’m not sure that they would take our help, even if we did.”
Michaels nodded glumly at that.
“When we get to the ship,” continued Dumont, “I’m planning on contacting the authorities—seeing if there is a way to arrange some more concrete assistance.” He smiled, and added, “in this world.”
Michaels snorted a half-laugh. “And, in the meantime, it probably doesn’t hurt to provide some guidance for the next.”
“I’m glad you approve,” said Dumont.
Neither man spoke for a while, although Dumont saw Michaels open his mouth to speak several times. When he finally spoke, he was obviously concentrating on keeping his tone casual.
“You know,” he said, “even with all their problems, I envy them the life they lead. The things they do really matter to the people around them, and they seem so, I don’t know, in-tune with life.”
Dumont’s eyebrows went up. “Thinking of settling down?”
“No!” said Michaels. “Well, I mean, obviously it wouldn’t work. It’s just… I don’t know… a pleasant idea.”
Dumont would do anything for his calling, but the idea of staying in such a primitive place forever was close to his worst nightmare. This was something, though, that he would never admit to his friend—particularly after Michaels had opened up to him like that.
“It does sound lovely,” he said. Then, because he was fundamentally honest, he added, “at least for a while.”
After that, they saved their energy for the rest of the hike.
Father Dumont held several more sessions with the Tamirra. They seemed increasingly excited, although never quite about the things that Dumont thought were important. He tried to focus on redemption and the Gospels, but they were most interested in God’s plan and in the idea of Heaven.
Heaven, in particular, taxed Michaels’ ability to translate. It was hard to differentiate between the sky and the stars and the biblical idea, particularly since the Tamirra had no clear idea of either.
Dumont also had trouble with the Golden Rule, although in the strangest way. The Tamirra were confused as to the need for a rule, since they couldn’t conceive of not always trying to do the right thing. If ever anyone deserved salvation, Dumont thought, it was these kind, gentle people.
For his part, Michaels had been fighting to try and get more secular assistance, sending off increasingly irate messages. Part of the problem was that, technically, missionary work was not permitted by the authorities, although they generally showed a blind eye to it. There were all sorts of protocols for contacting lost societies, and without following those, no help would be forthcoming.
What was to be Dumont’s next missionary session was interrupted by one of the women, who came up to Umtami, and went into such a rapid-fire conversation that even Michaels had no idea what was being said. Umtami, looking worried, rose, bowed an apology to Dumont, and followed the woman. A dozen of the men in the village followed. Michaels caught Dumont’s eye, then shrugged, and the two of them followed.
It became obvious what the problem was after a few minutes. The spring that provided fresh water to the village was in an outcropping of rocks nearby. The spring had just been a trickle, and now it had stopped flowing altogether.
Umtami stared at the rock as if he could will the water to reappear. Father Dumont’s heart went out to him, wishing he could offer some sort of practical advice. Dumont had no idea what Umtami would do, but he knew with certainty that Umtami would never give up.
“Tools,” said Umtami, pointing to several of the men. They ran back to the village and returned with various tools made of wood and stone, and two very valuable tools made of iron. Under his direction, the men began to dig away at the earth and rocks where the spring had been.
After watching them for a moment, Michaels ran back to their hut, and returned with a small camping shovel and a hammer. He handed the shovel to Dumont and the two men joined in the work. For a moment Dumont thought Umtami was going to object, but he said nothing.
A number of hours later, Michaels and Dumont were taking a break along with Jol and several of the other men. A sizeable area had been cleared, but with no apparent effect.
“Any idea what might have caused the spring to stop running,” asked Dumont?
Michaels shook his head. “Act of God?” he suggested.
“Not funny,” said Dumont.
“Sorry.” Michaels sighed, then looked at Jol, who had been watching them. “Jol,” he asked in the Tamirra language, “has this happened before?”
Jol nodded. “Twice. Each time we have had to move the village.”
Dumont figured that this was about to make time number three, but at that moment there was a yell from the men who were still working. They turned to see that water was now bubbling out of the hole they’d dug. In their happiness, the Tamirra were rubbing mud on each other and laughing.
“Now that,” said Dumont, laughing himself, “is an act of God!”
Michaels thought it was more proof of the Tamirra’s willingness to confront problems head-on, but he said nothing. He slapped Jol on the back, who grinned at him.
The next day, Umtami and the council held a long session, while Michaels and Dumont sat in their hut, talking about Dumont’s mission.
“It’s interesting,” said Michaels, “that they have no trouble accepting what you tell them, given that they have no history of religion.”
“Why wouldn’t they?” asked Dumont. It had never really occurred to him that anyone would question the truth of what he said. He knew there were people, like Michaels, who professed not to believe, but he always figured that they were just being willful and would eventually come around.
“No reason, particularly. I suppose if I didn’t know about other worlds, and people dropped from the sky, I’d believe pretty much whatever they told me.”
Dumont frowned. “I don’t think that’s true. The Tamirra are some of the best people I’ve ever met. I think that if I delivered a message that didn’t fit with their fundamental goodness, then they wouldn’t accept it.”
There was a knock on the wall of the hut. Jol was standing there. When the two men looked towards him, he bowed, then said, “Meykels. My father would like to talk to you.”
Michaels looked at Dumont, then shrugged again, and rose to follow the boy.
Dumont watched him go, curious, but figuring he would get an explanation when Michaels returned. However, an hour passed, then two, and there was still no sign of him. Dumont contemplated going out and searching, but decided that he could wait to get his curiosity satisfied in the morning. He lay down on his sleeping mat, and dozed off almost immediately.
It wasn’t a complete surprise. Michaels had talked to Jol about the idea of staying, and Jol had been excited by the idea—suggesting that Michaels could join the tribe, although he hadn’t entirely taken it seriously.
But Jol had obviously told his father, who had discussed it with the council. Before he knew it, Michaels was participating in a ceremony that would make him an official member of the tribe. Like everything else with the Tamirra, the ceremony was simple, but strangely moving. A few words and the sharing of a cup, then hugs and congratulations from everyone present.
After that there was drinking, but not to excess. Michaels was on the verge of dozing, when Umtami came up to him.
“Meykels. There is something that I would like to ask you.”
Michaels blinked back to wakefulness. He realized that the hut was now empty other than him and Umtami.
“The council has talked for some time,” said Umtami. “We believe that we know what to do to return our village to prosperity.”
“That’s great,” said Michaels, genuinely pleased, although he couldn’t imagine what the council had come up with. Then he noticed that Umtami looked embarrassed.
“What is it?”
“As a guest, we could not ask for your help. We worry, though, that you may think that we only accepted you into the tribe in order to get your help. This is not so.”
Michaels felt emotion welling up inside of him. He grasped Umtami’s hand.
“Umtami,” he said, “One of the reasons that I wanted to join you was because I know that you would never do that.”
A look of relief crossed Umtami’s face.
“Also,” continued Michaels, “you are now my people. There is nothing you could ask of me that I would refuse.”
After Umtami explained what the council had decided, Michael’s face turned white.
When Dumont woke in the morning, Michaels had still not returned. Dumont wandered out into the village, but didn’t see him, and none of the women he asked knew where he was. He only saw women and a couple of the elders, which was strange. Usually the village was a swarm of activity at this time. It seemed like most of the warriors had gone.
Giving up, he returned to the hut, and noticed that there were two large packs of supplies sitting on Michaels’ mat, which was odd. On one of the packs was a message cube. Dumont picked it up and played the message. Sure he must have misunderstood, he played the message again. And then a third time.
Then he sank down onto his own mat and buried his head in his hands. He thought about everything he had said in the last few weeks about God and religion. He wished that he had thought to quote Job to himself; if only you would shut up and let that be your wisdom.
Umtami looked with pride at his son, who was now officially a man, and was standing with the rest of the warriors, spear leaning upright against his shoulder.
The inside of the vessel was very strange, and Meykels had cautioned them against touching any controls, although Umtami didn’t know what that meant. To be safe, he warned his people to stand as still as possible, and to avoid any of the walls. This was difficult, since there wasn’t much space, but they did it without complaint. Meykels said he would tell them when it was safe to move around.
The discussion in council had been long and more contentious than usual. Several of the council thought that Farrer Tumon must be mistaken, and that this God of whom he spoke could not be responsible. Others thought that anyone who could destroy the herds and hide the waters would be too strong to defeat. Meykels, too, had argued that it was a mistake—that finding God would be difficult or impossible—although he had promised to help, no matter what was decided.
Umtami, though, trusted Farrer Tumon’s judgement, and also trusted in the strength of the village’s warriors. Jol had reported what he had heard the two visitors say in their own language—that the drying of the spring had been specifically caused by God. Umtami had pointed out that they had defeated God in this, and had restored the spring. This God was obviously their enemy. Umtami was thankful that Farrer Tumon had come to tell them of the threat to their village and to their world.
And now, thanks to the help of Meykels and his vessel, they would find God in the heavens and issue him a formal challenge.
There was a slight shuddering as the vessel left the ground and rose on wings of fire.
Copyright 2021 by Arlen Feldman