SAVING GRACE
By Jeff Robinson (4,816 words)
(published SFN Anthology from AKW Books 5/2009 "More Alpha Dreams")

The Chief Science officer approached Sub-Commander Gornarak with the final planetary briefing. He slapped his chest in a formal salute and lowered his head submissively as he handed the data crystal to the leader of the expeditionary force.

The Sub-Commander growled and took the crystal, sliding it into the data-port on his console. A series of high-resolution images of the planet below flashed across the screen, but Gornarak ignored them and skipped to the details of the first contact the ship’s science staff had proposed. The Sub-Commander perused the details and another low growl echoed his concerns. “Chief Researcher Craska,” he said, “how certain are you of this analysis?”

The scientist raised his eyes and met Gornarak’s gaze fully, but his eyes blinked with obvious worry. “My staff and I studied this planet for nearly two full cycles, and we are confident that the scenario we have outlined provides the highest chance of a successful first contact that yields the desired outcome.”

“That doesn’t answer my question, Craska,” snarled Gornarak. “I asked how certain you were of your plan. The Kratall cannot afford another incident like that which occurred in the Antares system. The initial planetary negotiations failed miserably there. As a result of the unfortunate loss of life, which followed in the aftermath of those meetings, we have been forced to endure the presence of Montari observers at all first contacts from now on.”

Gornarak turned and glared at the Montari representative who stood silently on the other side of the bridge.

The Montari were the eyes and ears of the Confederation Council. They were an old, respected race and had great influence in Galactic affairs. In contrast to the members of his own race, the Montari were tall, frail looking creatures. They were, however, powerful telepaths and formidable opponents. Members of their species preferred to assume roles, where they controlled others without placing themselves at risk. This Montari was assigned to this vessel to ensure that the Confederation protocols, protecting non-aligned sentient races, were strictly followed. More incidents like those at Antares would result in severe punishment of the Kratall and possibly cost them their seat on the Council.

The Montari delegate returned Gornarak’s stare and nodded politely. His large unblinking eyes and pale skin sent an involuntary shudder of revulsion across the Sub-Commander, and he hissed and turned back to his science officer.

The Kratall were only one of twenty races represented on the Council. While there were many more intelligent species in the Confederation, only the most powerful served on the ruling body. The Kratall, however, were the youngest race to hold a Council seat. That was one reason this expeditionary program was so important to the Kratall leadership. If their race was ever going to gain power in the Council, they would have to greatly expand the number of star systems they controlled.

As a warrior race, conquest and expansion for the Kratall was as natural as feeding, but the reptilian race found it difficult to comply with all of the rules and regulations that the Confederation imposed. The protocols controlling and limiting first contact activities were particularly troubling. If Sub-Commander Gornarak successfully completed these negotiations, he would be richly rewarded and promoted to full Commander in charge of an entire fleet. His tongue snaked out of his mouth, as he imagined the sweet taste of victory such a success would bring. The irises of his snakelike eyes narrowed, as he addressed the Science Officer once more. “Are you willing to bet your life that your predictions are correct?”

“I am confident,” the science officer replied, “our plans offer the greatest chance for success. But since you will lead the first contact team personally, it is all in your hands.” He bowed, gestured openly with his hands, and backed away.

Gornarak hissed loudly and was tempted to strike the Chief Science Officer for his insolence, but the wary scientist had already backed out of reach. The Sub-Commander fought back the urge to rip his subordinate with his talons. Despite the positive disciplinary value of public chastisement on the rest of the crew, fights in the presence of alien visitors were discouraged.

“If you are wrong,” Gornarak said. “You will be consigned to the biomass recyclers before the evening meal.” He glared angrily and retracted his extended claws with a loud click. The constraints on first contact situations with planet bound cultures that the Council places on us is not reasonable, thought Gornarak. The puny species on these backward planets should be subject to more powerful races. It is a natural rule of nature that the strongest should rule the weaker. The Council, however, protected these primitive worlds and set up rules restricting all interactions except in special cases. It will not matter, Gornarak thought. Their rules won’t do them any good. The Kratall leadership had developed strategies to circumvent these policies.

All the Sub-Commander had to do was establish trade agreements with an authorized representative of this world and give the inhabitants technology beyond their understanding. Within a handful of years, the indigenous cultures would be collapse and the local populations would become completely dependent upon their new benefactors. Total servitude could be completely imposed without overt warfare or invasion, which the Council strictly forbid. All he had to do was to get these creatures to accept his gifts. The more they accepted, the more dependent upon the Kratall they would become and the swifter their demise.

Addressing the scientist, once more, Gornarak said, “Explain the rationale behind your recommendations, here.” He tapped the display screen with the razor sharp XX of his right hand.

The scientist expounded on his first contact proposal, but remained out of the Sub-Commander’s reach. “The region we have selected is the best one available. The inhabitants have a low level of technology, but a large well established bureaucracy that extends back more than fifty generations. Since there is no central world government, we have decided to contact one of the larger regional tribes. While there are other tribes just as large, those others are currently involved in internecine civil wars and are not cohesive enough to meet minimum first contact requirements. The other continents on the planet host sporadic bands of barbarian tribes that are also below minimum social standards required to establish trade binding agreements.”

“Have you identified a representative of their race suitable for the first contact meeting?” asked Gornarak.

“We have,” said Chief researcher Craska. “A member of the ruling class has been located, far from any major commercial centers. Remote drones have monitored the target. The shuttle craft is prepared, awaiting your command, and we are ready to establish contact whenever you wish.”

“Let’s go then,” said Gornarak. He rose from his command chair and shoved the scientist aside, as he strode toward the door. Before he had taken more than a few steps, however, he flinched, as a telepathic message from the Montari observer assaulted him.

<Aren’t you forgetting about me?> said the observer silently, telepathically reminding the Sub-Commander..

Snarling, Gornarak turned and barked, “Yes, yes, of course that means you, too. Now hurry. I’ll brook no further delay.”

With that, the Sub-Commander stormed off the bridge. The Kratall scientist hurried to follow, but the Montari representative ambled slowly toward the shuttle bay, as if there were no urgency at all.

*****

Father Gregory and Brother Cort walked slowly along the long dirt road. They had been traveling since dawn, and the young Brother Cort was gasping for breath at the incline of the road, which increased as it rose further into the hills ahead.

“Can’t we stop and rest for a while, Father?” he asked.

The elder priest stopped and looked back at his companion. “You are paying now for the sin of sloth that I chastised you for all winter. If you weren’t so lazy, you would be in better shape.”

Cort hurried to catch up with his older companion, breaking into a short run, which concluded when he reached the older monk. Pausing, he leaned heavily on his staff, gasping for air. “Please, just let me stop for a drink.”

Father Gregory shook his head. “You need to practice more self restraint as well, Brother Cort.” Reaching down and tapping the empty water-skin hanging by Cort’s side with the butt of his staff. “You have already consumed all of your own water and the day is but half gone. I assume you are imposing upon my charity to give you some of mine.”

Cort did not reply, but turned his eyes downward to avoid the gaze of his mentor.

Father Gregory calmly set his staff in the crook of his arm and took his own water-skin from his waist. It was nearly full. While Cort watched, Father Gregory unplugged the cork, and raised it to his lips. He drank long and hard. Water ran down his face, as Brother Cort anxiously looked on. When Father Gregory finished, the young brother asked, “Please, Father.”

Father Gregory laughed and passed him the heavy water-skin. “Here,” said the older monk, “but only drink lightly, for it must last for both off us and you now must carry it the rest of the way.”

Brother Cort took the water and began to drink from it. His thirst was barely quenched, when he felt a tap on his side. Lowering the water-skin, he looked up to see saw Father Gregory lowering his staff and scowling darkly. Cort plugged the water-skin and looped the strap over his shoulder. “Come, now,” commanded Gregory. “We must get to the monastery by nightfall.”

Before Father Gregory could turn and continue along the road, Brother Cort’s eyes grew wide and he pointed urgently uphill. “There, Father. There it is again. Just like I told you.”

Father Gregory spun about and looked in the direction young Cort indicated. He sighed and said, “I see nothing. It’s just your imagination, again.”

“No, it’s not,” insisted Cort. “It was there. Just like before. It was a bright light that descended from the sky and disappeared behind those trees.”

“I know, Brother. Last time you insisted it was an angel coming down from heaven.”

Cort hung his head, expecting further admonishment. Twice now Cort had claimed to see lights in the sky. Father Gregory started to scold the youth, but glanced back at the tree and caught a glimpse of something reflecting sunlight through the underbrush. Perhaps the boy saw something after all, he thought. He gave his young novice a friendly slap on the shoulder, and said, “It’s probably nothing, but come. It’s on our way. Let’s find out what you saw.”

Brother Cort perked up and hurried down the road ahead of Gregory.

Gregory let him run and soon lost sight of his charge, as the youth disappeared around a bend in the road. Gregory shook his head in dismay. The boy will exhaust himself soon, and then I’ll have to rebuke him just to keep us moving at a normal pace. He has no self-discipline whatsoever. Gregory started to call after Cort to berate him, but stopped himself. It’s not his fault. He did not seek this life, and he is not yet prepared for it.

The winter in Wetterau during 1349 had been particularly hard. After the snows had settled in, the town had been devastated by another outbreak of the Plague. As the winter grew colder, more and more people died.

At the feast of Twelfth Night, Gregory officiated at a mass funeral instead of joining festive celebrations. Three weeks later, the last survivors in town were driven from their homes, when soldiers from the nearby castle at Geichburg burned the few homes that remained. Only the tiny abbey in which he and a handful of other monks resided was spared. The abbey, however, was not immune to the devastation of the Black Death and by the end of the winter, only Gregory and young Cort remained.

When the snows finally melted, and the high roads opened once more, Father Gregory had sent a message by courier to the Cistercian Monastery at Maulbronn in the Salchaz valley in Alps far to the south. The reply he’d received six days ago confirmed that the monastery had miraculously been spared the ravages of the Plague. Indeed, the abbot there invited them both to join their order, and bid them to come soon to help with the spring planting in nearby fields.

With nothing to hold them to the ruined town of Wetterau, Father Gregory packed what essentials he could carry and left immediately, bringing the boy with him. Cort and Father Gregory had travelled together for a week and would reach the monestary tonight, weather and delays permitting. The elder monk insisted on selling their horses and all their possessions along the way. He even gave away all their money at the last town they’d passed through. It’s best the boy begin to accept the life of hardship that faces him.

Father Gregory had just reached the bend in the road, when young Brother Cort came running back around the corner at a dead run. His eyes were as big as hen’s eggs and he gasped incoherently, while pointing frantically behind him. Gregory maintained a steady pace, as he rounded the turn in the road, but stopped abruptly when he saw what had caused Cort’s distress.

In the middle of the road sat a large metal disk, at least thirty feet across and fifteen feet high. It gleamed like polished silver and the edge of the disk extended beyond the road to either side, blocking any hope of passage along the wide dirt path. Gregory saw that several tall trees had been snapped like kindling. The center of the object had a dark opening in it, and a ramp led down from the aperture to the dusty road before them.

At the base of the ramp stood three men. Their forms shimmered and glowed faintly, even in the noonday sun. They wore long white gowns and had beautiful angelic features. One stood to the rear with his hands folded patiently in front of him. The second held a metal device in its hands and his fingers played with knobs and buttons on its surface. The third smiled broadly and gestured to Gregory and Cort with open arms.

“Well met, friends,” the stranger said. “I am a visitor, a traveler, and a trader. I come with good will and would wish to speak with you.”

Father Gregory stopped a half-dozen paces away. Brother Cort cowered behind him, still unable to speak. Gregory looked about and said, “A trader? Where are your goods and where is your wagon?”

The man in the glowing white robe gestured at the large metal disk behind him. “This is my conveyance,” he said. “It flies through the sky and many of my goods are inside, if you wish to see them. My name is Gornarak and I come from far, far away.”

Cort looked eagerly at Father Gregory and motioned mutely that he wanted to see the inside of the large metal machine. When Gregory did not respond, Cort said, “That’s what I saw, Father. Flying above the trees. It shone with light from the noonday sun. Don’t you think we should…”

Gregory flashed a menacing glare at Cort, who immediately silenced himself and backed away submissively.

“No, thank you,” said Gregory to the stranger. “I do not think we care to enter your flying machine.”

“Just as well,” the visitor said. “”But I want you to know that I have come specifically to find you. I need to talk to you and I bring you gifts.”

“From where have you come? And why do you seek me?” the old monk asked warily.

“As I said, I have come from far away, another world like yours, but one that circles a distant star, the way yours circles your sun. I am the first of my kind to visit your world openly, and I have sought you out, since you are a member of the ruling hierarchy here. Is that correct?”

Gregory smiled politely. Cort stood behind him and peeked out at the strangers from behind his billowing robes. “That is true. I am an ordained member of the Holy Catholic Church,” he said.

“And they rule this land? Is that correct?” the stranger asked.

Gregory nodded. “The Mother Church holds sway over these lands. While others control smaller regions, all kings and sovereigns must bow their heads and bend their knees to her.”

“And, as a representative of this…Church, you can speak with for all its members?”

Gregory grasped his staff with both hands and planted it firmly on the ground in front of him. His back straightened and he said, “I have been given the authority of the Church to administer God’s commandments and minister to its people. I have been given the power over matters material and spiritual. I can bestow absolution and can perform the sacraments. Yes, I act in accordance with the will of the Mother Church, and speak with full authority on her behalf.”

The spokesman of the group looked back at his companions and nodded, then he turned to Gregory once more and said, “Excellent, then I have a proposal for you.”

Gregory’s face grew somber. “Speak, then. I will listen.”

The stranger took a step closer and smiled. “I am empowered to offer you, your people, and your Church, great gifts. My people wish to become friends with yours. As a gift of good faith, I can offer you any material resource, any mineral or gem. I can give you gold or diamonds. These are things you value, are they not?”

“Some value such things,” said Father Gregory, “but the Church teaches us that material wealth has no value. In any case, I have taken a vow of poverty and cannot accept such gifts.”

“How selfless,” said the stranger smirking sarcastically. “Let me offer other things instead, then.” He reached into his robe and pulled out a vial of glowing golden liquid. “I have here a vial of medicine that can cure the plague, which has been decimating your countrymen. We have others that can cure all diseases and extend your life many times. If you accept this gift, then suffering and death from old age and disease will become a thing of the past.”

Cort’s eyes grew wide in amazement, but Gregory seemed unmoved. “Interesting, what else do you offer?” he asked once more.

The stranger grew excited and eager. “I can offer you grains that, even with your primitive technology, could increase the yield of your crops tenfold. Moreover, I can show you how you can improve your farming techniques to increase them ten times more. Hunger and starvation can be dispelled and relegated to mere memory. Would this not be wonderful?”

“Such an achievement would be marvelous indeed,” said Gregory. “Yet I perceive you have still more to offer.”

“Indeed, I do. I can give you weapons, which can kill your enemies from great distances and reduce them to ash regardless of their armor or defenses. You armies would be invincible and your people could rule the world. Such weapons would give ordinary soldiers almost God-like power, would they not?”

The Father nodded grimly, “That was my thought exactly. Is there more, still?

“Yes, of course,” said the stranger. “If you wish it, we can share with you the secrets of the ages. My people can teach you to arts of science and mathematics that will let you build wondrous devices to enrich your world. Imagine lights that burn without heat or oil and illuminate the night as bright as day. You could build vehicles and cross your land faster than the fastest bird. You could fashion devices, which would allow you to communicate instantly with others far away in the most distant lands. You could talk to them and see them no matter how far away they were. We can show you how to negate gravity, the strongest force in the universe, and teach you how to fly high into space up into the heavens above your world.”

Gregory seemed unmoved.

“Wouldn’t these be marvelous things?”

Gregory nodded. “They would be most marvelous, indeed. But what do you want in exchange for these gifts?”

“Why nothing more than your good will,” the stranger said. “All we ask is for the opportunity to give you these things and for my people to visit your world freely to share these wonders with all mankind.”

“How selfless,” replied Father Gregory, smiling softly, returning the visitors earlier compliment.

“So? What do you say?” asked the stranger. “What is your answer? Do you accept these things?”

Gregory looked at Cort, who was totally speechless. His eyes were wide with wonder and Gregory knew the boy was utterly enthralled.

With obvious impatience, the stranger again. “What is your answer?”

Gregory turned back to Gornarak and slammed his staff against the ground. “My answer is NO,” he shouted. “On behalf of my companion, and myself, and in the name of the Holy Mother Church, I say No. I reject you and your gifts. I reject all your lies, all your false promises, and anything to do with you or your ilk. I banish you in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and bid you leave this place. Tempt me no more, foul spirit. Return to your master and tell him to leave us alone and not return.”

The stranger stood dumfounded, his mouth agape.

Father Gregory started chanting the rites of exorcism and swung his staff at the stranger’s head. The staff struck solidly and Gornarak stumbled backwards. Before he could regain his footing, Gregory swung again and the end of the staff rose with blinding speed and struck the stranger at the bottom of his jaw.

The stranger flew backwards and crashed into the second man behind him. The box he held fell to the ground and shattered. The shapes of the three strangers shimmered and faded and their true shapes were revealed.

Cort gasped at the sight of the two lizard men. The first one growled and leapt to its feet. The other lay on the ground stunned. Gornarak wiped blood from his mouth with the back of his hand and snarled. He extended his talons with an audible “shhhtickk” and dropped into a fighting stance. Father Gregory stood his ground and continued to chant, his staff held high ready to strike again, if the other approached.

As Gornarak tensed to jump upon his prey, a mental shout was heard by all. <You have your answer, Garnarak!>

The Kratall Sub-Commander spun and faced the placid Montari envoy. “What?” he hissed.

<I said, you have received your answer. First contact protocols allow you to select the time, place, and subject for your offers. Then you are obligated to wait for an answer. True, this response was quicker than most, but it could hardly be more definitive.> The Montari actually seemed to grin.

Gornarak spit blood on the ground at the Montari’s feet and spun back to the old monk. “I don’t care,” he said. “No one strikes me like that and lives.” He leapt for his opponent, but the soft looking monk leapt nimbly aside and the spinning quarterstaff changed its direction swiftly, slamming into the back of the Sub-Commanders head, as he flew through the air, missing his target. The force of the blow drove him to the ground again and Gornarak slid on his face across the ground. When he rose and turned, a killing fury burned in his eyes.

<Be warned,> said the Montari wordlessly. <Slaying this creature will constitute another “incident” and will likely result in the forfeiture of the Kratall Council seat and your subsequent “public execution”.>

Gornarak hesitated, torn between conflicting courses of action. Slowly, his fighting talons retracted and disappeared. Straightening slowly, the reptilian warrior stood and slapped his chest in a salute to the defiant little Earthling. Turning away dismissively, Gornarak walked back to the ramp of the ship.

The Chief researcher, who Gregory had knocked down, regained his feet just as Gornarak passed him, but doubled over once again as his commander, re-extended the claws on one had and disemboweled the scientist with one swipe of his claw. Snarling, Gornarak glared at the Montari observer and glanced back one last time at the two monks. Then he grabbed the dead scientist by his utility harness and dragged the body up the ramp into the tiny ship.

The Montari followed, never looking at the Earthlings. Moments later, the ramp retracted, the door to the craft closed, and it rose effortlessly into the sky, accelerating rapidly into the distance.

Father Gregory and Brother Cort watched as the ship receded and disappeared from view. Then, without comment, Gregory continued his journey uphill to the Cistercian Monastery of Maulbronn as if nothing of consequence had happened at all.

Cort stood in shock and surprise for a few moments and then ran to catch up to his master. “Wait, Father,” shouted Cort. “What…what happened?”

Gregory stopped and waited for his young ward. “What do you think happened?” he said as he studied the youth.

Cort gasped. “Beings from another world came and offered you wealth and riches, but you turned them down and drove them away with your staff.” Gregory laughed. “It was nothing like that at all. They were demons and they came to tempt us with their lies.”

“Lies?” asked Cort. “How could you tell they were lying?”

Gregory rolled his eyes. “Why, everything they said was a lie. They said they came from another world. But the only worlds are Earth, Heaven and Hell. They said our world circled the Sun, but it’s well known that the Sun revolves around the Earth. They said gravity was the strongest force in the universe, but the Church teaches us that the most powerful force is God’s love. Those demons came straight from Hell and from the Prince of Lies himself. Everything they said was a trick to tempt us and corrupt us.”

“But what about the things they promised? Were those lies too?

“No,” said Gregory. “Those were probably real. But those gifts would cost you your soul. For instance, remember the golden liquid that could cure all ills? God sends illness and disease to mankind to help us atone for our sins. If we were spared that suffering, we could never reach salvation. The weapons he promised would very likely also be real. But can you imagine the horrors of war, if killing we made so simple?”

Father Gregory winced at the thought and then waved his hand dismissively. “The other gifts are temporal, material items. They would feed the sins of pride, envy and avarice. Remember, if you receive your rewards here on Earth, you will be denied them in heaven. Offering these things was the Devil’s way of tempting you now, so you would be denied your eternal rewards in paradise.”

“Does that even apply to the gift of knowledge he offered?” asked the young novice.

“Especially that,” said Gregory. “Remember, Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden when they ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. What fate do you think man would suffer, if mankind ate from that tree a second time?”

Cort’s eyebrow’s furrowed, as he tried to imagine being banished to a place worse than this world of Black Death and war. He fell silent and asked no more questions for a long time.

At the end of the day, as twilight rapidly approached, the two weary travelers finally came in sight of the Monastery. The distant lights of candles from the main Church were visible far up on the mountainside.

“Wow,” said Brother Cort, “will we have a story to tell when we arrive tonight.” He beamed with pride at his good fortune in witnessing his master save mankind.

Gregory, however, stopped and glared down at the youth. “You can’t tell anyone,” he said. “Have you forgotten? We will be bound by the vows of the Cistercian brothers, as soon as we enter their compound. I already accepted your vows of chastity and obedience this past winter, when you sought refuge with me at the village church. Along our trip, I helped you achieve your vow of poverty by selling all our goods. When you enter the Monastery of Maulbronn, I will expect you to accept their vow of perpetual silence, as well. Do you understand?”

Cort blinked in shock. In all the excitement, he’d forgotten. Finally, Cort nodded his head sadly and they started the last leg of their journey up the steep gravel road. They spoke no more of their unusual adventure as they headed up the last, long hill to their new home.

 

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