by Jacques Barbéri
Translated by Michael Shreve
For Cordwainer Smith, the Great Interstellar Helmsman.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades?
Can you loose the chains of Orion?
Can you bring forth the constellations in their Seasons,
Or lead out the Bear with its cubs?
–The Book of Job
It looks like a meta-beast – half stick insect, half human, all scrag and angles. But it is fully human. An eighth generation spacer who has never set foot on a planet. Without an anti-g stabilizer Kaliandra would crush his bones to dust, but the dermal nano-stabilizers allow him to go without even a helmet. He struggles a little and then ends up offering the toothless old man facing him the semblance of a smile. The air of Kaliandra is a real blessing. Its electrifying contact makes him shiver with joy. His long, fragile fingers trace the arabesques that decorate the cover of the notebook that the old man has just given him. He sits on the ledge letting his feet dangle in space. Vertigo is only a word to him, but the luxuriant forest that spreads out in every direction as far as the eye can see distorts his perspective and the valley that extends a few thousand feet below seems only a few feet away. He sways and the old man grabs him by the shoulder, in turn offering a smile. A long sigh and he opens the notebook with a trembling hand. His eyes sweep across the signs, catching the fragments of a story that he already knows and that is both a surprise and a relief to rediscover in these pages…
(…) The other scanners take me for a lunatic. They can hardly tell the difference between the Oekumen’s Grand Armada and an exploration platform, between the Radiant Church of Christ Resurrected and Teratek Inc. It must be remembered that the man in black of the galaxy’s biggest holding company has become the man in black of the New Church. The CEO has metamorphosed into the Prophet and has had no trouble recruiting the best scanners to his company, enrolling them rather, under the thorny banner of Christ the Redeemer. States of mind are bought like everything else and Elric P. Mandelstrom has plenty of money to spare… Until today I haven’t complained, but now I’m beginning to regret that. I’m just realizing how dangerous this man really is. And I’m looking forward to only one thing: finishing this contract…
(…) The Kynsos Marcusbi II is one of the most impressive vessels of the Armada. The Octo-pilot is assisted by fifteen co-pilots: two psychomachines and thirteen meta-beasts. Lisandra is a meta-dog. She’s magnificent. I think I’ve fallen in love with her. She loves me a little, too. Probably because I’m a scanner and she dreams of becoming one. She hasn’t come to the crew’s mess for three days. I’m beginning to get seriously worried.
(…) Lisandra has just been sentenced for heresy. The meta-beasts can’t get over it, the psychomachines can’t figure it out and the scanners act like nothing’s happened, but in the vessel, everything has changed!
The platform smelled of urine and burnt oil.
Kougar Khan marked his arrival with a perilous leap that landed him almost perfectly into his launch shell. In soft gravity, it was not much of an accomplishment and the old drifters at the station did not bat an eye.
The little novice was in the shell next to his. Kougar had shown off for her.
She had landed the day before. Her needle had pierced the carcass of the station with a nerve-shattering screech; the receiving cells needed a good greasing. For that matter, the whole platform deserved a little facelift, but Teratek had long ago crossed out the word “comfort” from its vocabulary. By an astonishing legal spin, only the scanners’ astroplasms were under contract. The techs of the platform were psychomachines and the navigator a meta-beast. Officially there were no humans on board. So, the comfort… the Company didn’t give a rat’s ass!
Her name was Isadora Palimpsest of the Solar Rayonnance. A little high-flown, but with a father who was the Ambassador of Eurotoile on Madder – the jewel of Teratek with respect to planetary engineering – and a mother who was a scion princess of the Grand Rayonnance of Ampelos, she was handling it rather well.
“Are you still ready to try the Great Leap?”
“You take me for a metabiote in an incubator, don’t you Kougar? You think that my father pulled some strings to satisfy the whims of a spoiled child?”
“The Sarfatti oscillator assigned you a particularly high decorporation rating. You have the required capacities to make an excellent scanner. But I think your psychological maturity may not be – for the time being – worthy of your talent.”
Isadora shrugged her shoulders and then slumped into the launch shell. She looked at the rust streaks absent-mindedly.
“So, you do take me for a spoiled child!”
Strange moods lined her face. Little sulky folds, irritated arches, sad collapse… For an instant, Kougar experienced a curious attraction. A moon and its planet. A fragile point of equilibrium between collision and repulsion.
“No, but for a metabiote in an incubator, for sure. And don’t forget… it’s your last training session. So, if you have any questions, it’s now or never…”
Isadora screwed up her face. The fingers of her left hand tapped the empty air and the cryostasic sheath clung lovingly to her skin.
Kougar sighed and then he, too, tapped some silent notes before savoring the incomparable embrace of his traveling skin.
(…) There are 1,110 souls on board the Kynsos Marcusbi. Although the word “soul” is not very appropriate. Do the soldiers of Christ have one? They all wear the robe with Oekumen colors – a yellow cross on a red background – thoracic armor in synth-marble and tall, oblong headgear topped by the cross of Peter III with the slanted cross bar. They number 666 like in every Astral Galleon. To combat the beast, supposedly. I know now that they’re the flanks of the ship that shelters them. Likewise, there are 333 civilians ready to colonize Paradise and 111 navigation officers. All that’s left is to calculate the square root of God!
Legs together, arms along his sides, Kougar was staring at the cabin ceiling, smiling. Next to him, Isadora was playing with his genitals and he was starting to get another erection.
“What exactly did you mean by now or never?”
“I didn’t think you were interested in me or that we’d spend the night together.”
“Who’s not interested in you on this platform?”
Kougar looked irritated and sucked his lip. “Touché,” he finally blurted out. “But it’s my nature. I can’t do anything about it…”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m a playboy and I like it.”
“That doesn’t bother me either,” Isadora murmured while kissing him half-heartedly, “but I’m still a little disappointed.”
She threw herself on Kougar, smiling. “I didn’t mean you. I was thinking of the station. I was expecting something more…”
“Appropriate to your social standing, perhaps?”
Isadora pulled back abruptly. “Are you sure that you’re always trying to seduce?”
“Sorry… I’ve never made love to the daughter of an Ambassador and…”
“Forget about the Ambassador, would you! You have a scanner in front of you.”
“That remains to be seen. You haven’t tried the Great Leap yet!”
“Exactly. I’ve only tried the great creep.”
Kougar dropped the ball. By the time he had deciphered the joke, Isadora had already pulled on her uniform. Canvas overalls that she slipped into without underwear. “This is what I was talking about… this mechanic’s gear and this rickety station, everything oozing rust. And all these hicks who keep it running!”
Kougar broke out laughing. “What were you expecting? To find a gathering of aristocrats farting around in silk and shiny metal? Well-modeled buildings in sparkling white, plastic and chrome, with panoramic views on every floor?”
“Certainly not. But a little more… class! These guys all look like… workers.” Kougar pulled on his overalls just as Isadora was taking hers off. “Workers… And why not little deer like you! Don’t play around too much with words. It only widens the gulf that divides your world from mine. Here, there are only employees handsomely paid by Teratek. All of them, men, women or trans, work their nasty butts off hoping to hit the jackpot, to discover the miracle planet, to pocket the bonus of all bonuses and retire to the countryside for the rest of their lives.”
“That’s not true… A scanner never hangs it up!”
Kougar snickered. “What do you know about it?”
Isadora let out a tense laugh. She was beautiful and fragile again. “I know it. That’s all.”
“You were sent here for training, not to spout philosophy on the soul of scanners…”
“Precisely… I thought that the training at least started with some courses on how the Kinsokaine and the flight shells work.”
“That wouldn’t do any good. The mechanics of astroplasmic travel are really too complex. They have to do with quantum decoherence and hyper-brane strings. To explain this would be long, tiresome and, in the end, pointless. We’re all riddled with nano crap, but no one really knows how it works. The Octo-pilot is certainly capable of getting this platform out of a black hole for you, but he doesn’t give a damn about the workings of a plasma motor. Only talent counts, imagination, original ideas, image, concept, pure invention… The rest is just math, pure science for the hardheads. You don’t need to know how the nanodronic swarm of astroplasmic strings works in order to rush among the stars… You only need your talent and imagination… It’s up to you to prove to us that you have some.”
(…) Lisandra thinks that the God of the Bible is evil, that he conceived the world as an impostor. That the true god is elsewhere and doesn’t care any more about us than about an ant lost in the desert or about a drifting neutrino. That the theory of the incarnation of God is only a phantasm. Besides, what’s left of the divine creation except the vague nostalgia of a lost paradise? The divine principle, the soul, is in each of us and Jesus understood that; he was not the incarnation of God, of the evil god who created our universe. But he knew how to make his soul sing. Like all scanners know how to do. The exact opposite of what the Gospel of the Oekumen teaches…
(…) In the enclosed space of the ship, thousands of parsecs from any inhabited center, the Oekumen, last avatar of Christianity, last sect to have succeeded, has just revealed its true face and at the same time that of its creator, the billionaire Elric P. Mandelstrom, self-baptized Peter III, prophet of the New Reformed Church. His revelation draws blithely from the Bible, the Torah and the Koran. Texts open to interpretation, just the opposite of the Final Gospel that curls its pages up around a frozen, irrevocable vision of the word of God, “for, whoever violates even the least of His commandments and who teaches men to violate them will be looked upon in the Kingdom of Heaven as a heretic and chased unto Hell with no hope for redemption!”
Kougar flopped into a meat shell and Psimac immediately handed him a cocktail of stars. The psycho-tapster knew him as a creature of habit and the strange attractor that agglomerated its neural molasses was going all out. The scanners’ mess was quiet. Cassandra slid over to him, casually stretched out on a raft-bar. Their test tubes clinked against each other and the white dwarves spluttered at the bottom of the blue liquid. Cassandra kissed him half-heartedly.
“If you’re bored, I’d like to spend some time with you.”
Cassandra was a splendid Chimera, mainly feline, but with slight touches of predatory bird and insect casting her onto the edge of mystery.
Kougar merely smiled. Cassandra growled, cracked her joints and rustled her down. “I see… How does an Ambassador’s daughter kiss?”
“Rather well… And afterward, she sleeps!”
Cassandra giggled and then licked her chops.
The scanners were there to explore the depths of space, to discover planets that could be terraformed cheaply and to pocket the bonus. They did not have time to waste in the arms of Morpheus. Curled up in the cryostasic sheaths, freed of the weight of thought, the astroplasmic ballads did them a lot more good than any night of sleep. The body rested and the soul got rid of the psychic stains. A few hours of sleep a week were enough to avoid any risk of oneiric intoxication. Kougar never slept. He was too scared of death. He used a nightmare sucker and that was perfect.
“And you’re in charge of deflowering her of the umbiplasm! That’s hilarious, isn’t it?”
“Ask the Octopus. He’s the one who dropped her at my feet.”
“Pilots are crazy. They don’t even know if planets exist anymore.”
Kougar laughed. “And you… Do you know? The meta-beasts have a sixth sense. They live in a bubble of the heightened present and are never wrong.”
“Bullshit! The mysticism of freaked out…”
Kougar suddenly grabbed her by the wrist. “Look…”
He presented the mess hall with a wide sweep of his free hand and then, twitching, he swung it like a pendulum. As if to say “this metal raft floating in deep space, populated by humans, meta-beasts, chimeras and psycho-machines is not a simple scanning platform, but an exploration vessel in the tradition of the Great Navigators of the Middle Ages on Earth” and he began:
“We can no longer leave this tub because it’s the only port for elsewhere. We’re all hoping, one day or another, to discover the secret door to the Great Mother of the matrix who gave birth to our universe in a silent quantum belch…”
Cassandra broke away from him. “Sometimes you almost scare me, Kougar. I understand why the Octopus gave you the girl. It seems that she had first figured on joining the convent of The Seven Sisters of the Cosmic Sponge, lost in the confines of the constellation of Taurus, before opting for our floating island. Your protégé is a repressed nun, Kougar. And you would be better off joining the Brotherhood of Thinker-Monks in Betelgeuse…”
Kougar could not help smiling. “Maybe… But she chose to come here. Like me, you and everyone else here on our frail, interstellar skiff. You should meditate on that for a minute.”
He swallowed the last drops of his cocktail of stars and then let the test tube float an instant in front of her face, still shocked by his last words.
Psimac, always on the lookout, shot out one of his appendages and snatched the vial before it crashed onto the red tile. Kougar unhooked the suctar from his neck. “You deserve a little tip.” He flattened it against Psimac’s strange attractor. The dream-pump emptied its oneiric pouch into the neural molasses of the psycho-machine who wriggled around like a rutting Octopus – Praised be our amazing Pilot!
(…) Sankirst and I have just discovered a type A planet. I understood right away why they always make scanners work in pairs. If I’d been alone, I wouldn’t have said anything. A green ball studded with blue. Never seen anything so… paradisiacal. But Sankirst’s astroplasm was with the angels. We were going to pocket the bonus. The jackpot. Become billionaires. I did not see things this way at all. Lisandra had been put in quarantine and we never should have accepted that. No member of the crew should have tolerated such an abuse of power. She had even undergone interrogation, like in the Middle Ages, but hadn’t repented. The pilot and co-pilots have no way to mutiny. Given the size of the ship, the slightest failure can cause an irreversible kynsotronic crash. The loss of Lisandra is already hard enough for them to deal with. The dreamers who feed the thirteen kynsomotors are barely aware of the events. As for the scanners, they have no weight to put in the balance now that Paradise has just been found…
“You just dreamed, didn’t you?”
Isadora nodded, dripping with sweat. Kougar kissed her and then told her that the hour had come to gather the dream. The real one. The dope of all dope. The psychedelic orgasm of astral degravitation.
Kougar was short of the truth. No words could ever describe the sensations that a scanner felt during the first Great Leap. No human, no chimera, no living being was capable of expressing the emotional flood that smashed the astroplasm. The entire universe transformed into an orgasmachine and ejaculated into the plasmic imprint of the scanner …
Isadora slid into the launch shell, naked and still dripping with sweat. Kougar gently sponged her, then he put on his suit and took his place in the shell next to hers. They simultaneously tapped the empty air. The cryostasic sheaths gently molded their bodies, and the astroplasms hyperluminated in a drift of sparks.
There were pillars of nebula and globular drifts, the crackling of quarks and the roar of antiquarks, warm spiral matrices, cosmic dust, fountains of stars, galactic blaze, silence throbbing with phantom suns, lactescent cataracts, gravitational wells spurting blood-red.
In the launch shell, Isadora’s lips were trembling. But in space, no sound escaped from her astroplasm’s mouth of light. Kougar’s had just pressed up against hers. Electric contact.
“Calm down… Channel your thoughts… Have you already forgotten everything I taught you?”
“No, but it’s so beautiful… It’s so…”
“More than that… I feel like we have the same essence… I mean… The galaxies… The constellations… We…”
“You’re right… The stars are our ancestors. And the astroplasm is there for us to show it…”
“My noble mother, princess of the Grand Rayonnance, would certainly see the proof of the existence of the soul here.”
Kougar’s astroplasm “shrugged its shoulders” and then slowed down. Space was still only a well of silence, but there was suddenly a strange vibration like a dull sound, impossible, as if a giant were leaping from one sun to another…
The universe needs myths and legends and that of Kougar and Isadora should begin here. In the heart of space… A few thousand parsecs from the Station, from their bodies in cryostasis… And even farther from Earth, which they had never seen and probably never would see.
“What’s going on, Kougar?”
“I don’t know… But whatever you do, don’t panic. The umbiplasm is still stuffed with Kinsokaine and can support an extremely strong traction.”
Hell broke loose in a blast, transforming them into ghosts of light, prisoners of a centrifuge… Ridiculous will-o’-the-wisps sucked up by a gigantic stellar maelstrom.
“In fifteen years of practice, I’ve never seen a magnetic storm the likes of this. For your first deep-space outing you’re spoiled…”
“Is it dangerous?”
“I’ll tell you if we get out of it unharmed…”
“Why not turn back right now?”
“Can’t do… The umbiplasm might burst. But if we ride the currents, we have a chance…”
“To pull through?”
“Are you scared?”
“A little… But it’s fascinating.”
Kougar’s astroplasm smiled, but the storm changed his face of light into a grotesque mask. “Maybe you really have the soul of a scanner after all…”
It was Isadora’s turn to smile, and her face was not deformed like Kougar’s, for the plain and simple reason that the storm had suddenly stopped.
They let themselves be cradled for a moment by the “silence”.
“It’s weird. Whatever I do, I’m always drawn in the same direction…”
“Me too. It’s hard to believe… Though we’re not far from a solar system…”
Isadora watched the dazzling sun that Kougar pointed out to her, but she could see nothing else. “I don’t see any planets…”
“Normal. A planet is a paltry celestial body on the scale of the universe. But I know it’s there, I sense it… It was one in a billion chance that the storm left us in such a place. The only problem…”
“Is finding the way back to the station.”
“No, our umbiplasms are unharmed. No worries about that… But an astroplasm is not very sensitive to gravitational attraction… Only a black hole is able to attract it…”
“So, I would like to know who, or what is laying this trap for us.”
A microsecond later, a planet filled their whole “field of vision”, decked out in brown, blue, green and white. They watched it at the heart of their astroplasms’ time, say a second of subjective time, 10-28 seconds of real time, and then they saw nothing but green tinged with brown. A forest? And a face. Huge. Another second. A face all hairy and lumpy, a mix of cat and polar bear. Then they saw nothing. They detected a kind of warmth and something like the smell of sludge. Sensations, however, unfamiliar to any astroplasm.
Then they saw again and it took them a little while to understand what they were seeing, especially “through what” they were seeing.
“Hello, souls. Awful weather, isn’t it? Space has been screwy ever since the Damned started putting holes in it everywhere…”
“Young souls as I see… Tell… Tell me about your exploits… Your loves and your pains and take a rest… Then I’ll tell you why I’m so glad to see you… So glad that you’re young… And so glad that you’re not damned…”
(…) For Cardinal Longkwist, Supreme Representative of the Oekumen on board the Kynsos Marcusbi II, there is not a shadow of a doubt: The soldiers of Christ the Redeemer have finally reached Paradise. The description that the all-powerful Lord gives of it in His Voyage Beyond the Heavens appears wondrously before the dumbfounded eyes of the freshly disembarked voyagers…
“And I saw mountains and valleys covered with forests. And the birds live on the heights and the bees and butterflies gather nectar and pollen on myriads of flowers and animals of all sizes, adorned with the grace and freshness of innocence, live in the undergrowth and big, slender bears inhabit the foliage where they build their dens of straw and dried mud. This Paradise from where you were chased will once again be granted you. And it is in the heart of the stars that my chosen people will find it.”
And I saw this as well. Forests, lakes, birds, insects and mammals of all kinds. And the big dens of straw and dried mud. But they were not inhabited by slender bears. They were humanoids, and one of them spoke to me. They are covered with hair from head to toe but are much more “human” than we are. They have a spoken language, but they are equally telepathic and can make their souls sing. Their vocabulary is very rich, but they have no word for technology or war or genocide or machine. They live in harmony with their Planet, which they call Kaliandra, which the “telepathic analogy” dubs with the sweet name of Cradlemoon.
The Oekumen wants to impose Paradise on them and is going to open wide all the doors of hell.
The vegetation covered the sheer reliefs like a green and russet skin. It extended in every direction, pierced by myriad lakes glinting blue. Little Station That Smiles in the Stars was sitting on the edge of a ridge next to Angel Donatello. Her long, hairy legs bumped against the side of the cliff. She was sad. Her face had some cat and bear, panda and koala, otter and dog. It was splendid. Covered with golden hair embraced by the sun. Kougar and Isadora smelled through her nose, saw through her eyes, and heard through her ears. The colors, scents and sounds of Kaliandra were intoxicating, but Little Station did not let them enjoy the drunkenness. She had total mastery over her body and relegated them to the status of passive observers. She was sad because she was not sheltering souls as she thought. Donatello had explained to her that Isadora and Kougar were only astroplasmic projections… That their bodies were thousands of light years away, curled up in their cryostasic sheaths. They were scanners, like him, and their lives were hanging by a thread. They could not be allowed to run the slightest risk.
Below in the heart of the immense valley that stretched out for a few hundred miles, the Cathedral erected by the soldiers of the Oekumen cast its spires and minarets of pink marble above the tallest trees of the Kaliandran jungle over the vegetal jellyfish, floating parasols, umbelliferae on the summits. The Cathedral was like a stone wart, a mineral cancer that ate away at the vegetation with jets of acid and tongues of fire. And it was easy to imagine the metastases that spread their poisoned network over the surface of the planet, unto the antipodes, to squeeze out from the soil the pale pink buds of the new murderous buildings.
The Oekumen had launched an armada into the stars to discover Paradise. One hundred and fifty spaceships with kinsotronic propulsion, piloted by the best meta-beasts of the galaxy, each guided by a team of scanners who transformed the vessels into stellar squid with umbiplasmic tentacles. Angel Donatello had discovered Paradise and offered Hell to the Kaliandrans. Now, he wanted to atone for his wrongs…
“If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t, of course. But unfortunately, I don’t have a time machine within easy reach and our days are numbered.”
He waved a white booklet in front of Little Station. “You know about this book, I suppose?”
Isadora and Kougar read the slim, gilt letters engraved on the cover: THE FINAL GOSPEL.
Little Station had made a little room for them and they could express themselves via her throat, mouth, tongue and lungs. The strangest thing was not to be using a foreign body, but to be doing it as a pair. They expressed themselves in a single voice and wondered how that was possible. As if the neurophysiologic substratum of Little Station’s body, the neurons, dendrites and other axons found a synaptic compromise with the mental impulses of their guests.
“We know this book very well… At least, a part of us knows it… Isadora, more precisely. Kougar, for whom religion is nothing but a bunch of nonsense, is going to give her room to talk more freely.”
Little Station started smiling. Unless it was Isadora. Or Kougar. Or all three at the same time.
“An Ambassador’s daughter ought to know the philosophical and religious principles that dominate the galaxy. I have, of course, studied the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran… But the monotheist religions of old Earth turned out to be rather soluble in space. Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed missed the flight. To set off again on God’s adventure, they needed a new prophet.”
“Legend tells that Elric Mandelstrom was on a retreat in Saturn’s rings when Christ appeared to him,” Donatello continued.
“He was as tall as a mountain and leapt from ring to ring. His voice was as loud as a rushing torrent and His gaze flashed pale pink lightning,” Isadora-Little Station quoted.
Donatello was young, thirty at most, but recent events had wrought havoc on him. He wanted to laugh, but he could not get the wrinkles out of his worried face. Nevertheless, a furtive smile pulled at his lips.
“The legend forgets to say that Mandelstrom was detoxing. Before his ‘retreat’, he’d been drinking a little too much scotch-benzedrine, and the lack of it was making him sail on the shores of delirium tremens.”
“Hallucination or apparition, it doesn’t really matter… Jesus Christ revealed to him the physical existence of Paradise. Adam and Eve had been chased from it, but a second chance was offered to the potential elect…”
“That’s not exactly right. On Saturn, Jesus revealed to him the location of a ‘journal’ that relates the strange days lived by the Messiah and His apostles between the resurrection and the ascension. Christ was appearing and disappearing and never looked the same. He was, in fact, trying to prove its existence. No apostle could understand what it really was. Jesus himself didn’t really quite grasp it. And it was only on discovering Kaliandra that I glimpsed the truth…”
“Jesus had really seen this planet,” Little Station let out.
Kougar was in on it again.
“Exactly. Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. And He was still not dead when they put Him in the tomb. He was cataleptic and His astroplasm was wandering in space. Jesus was a scanner. Maybe the first involuntary scanner of humankind and He discovered Paradise.”
“Are you as delirious as Mandelstrom?”
“Possibly. But I really think that Christ went to visit the stars and Elric Mandelstrom used His ‘report’ – about which the apostles understood nothing – to compose his Final Gospel.”
“Maybe he invented the whole thing…”
“Impossible. The ‘journal’ has been authenticated. It really was written in the first century of our era. Where Mandelstrom cheated a little was in the chronology of events. He certainly found the sacred text first, and then he invented the apparition of the giant Christ to establish his status as a prophet, in order that it raise no controversy. And it still caught on, as we can see now that the Oekumen has several million faithful and an army counting six thousand six hundred and six soldiers of Christ.”
“And the prophecy was fulfilled…”
Little Station gently pushed Kougar and Isadora into a corner of her being and took the floor, then the thought.
“They do not love the souls, they, like dead matter, heavy, they cannot fly, cannot sing, cannot listen to living music, make death useless, movement sterile, only their sick thought can name them Damned, they are Damned and the souls weep at their coming…”
(…) The Kaliandrans are frugivores and insectivores. They’re incapable of harming any living species apart from the insects and plants on which they feed. They know neither war nor murder. They’re telepathic and some of them accommodate souls. Souls have consciousness but no memory of a prior life. Souls don’t have much to do with any other form of life. Souls are maybe a fully formed species that plow through the cosmos and yearn to rest in some cozy brain. Souls are maybe mental parasites that pass from one body to another. For Cardinal Longkwist, Supreme Representative of the Oekumen on board the Kynsos Marcusbi II, souls are emissaries of the Devil come to corrupt Paradise. And the primitive natives (as he calls them out of the corner of his mouth so as not to dirty his tongue) who harbor them should be exorcised…
(…) The robots have finished assembling the Cathedral, but well before the last stone had been set, the inquisitors began officiating in their cellars. And the cries and screams of the ‘natives’ glide over the marble and gilding, making the curtains tremble and the windows rattle.
(…) They’ve let Lisandra go. Just like that. For no apparent reason. Just as they were exhibiting a fiercer and fiercer fundamentalism. As if they wanted to make us believe that they opted in fine for tolerance. I don’t believe it for a second. I’ve tried to discuss it with the other scanners, but they still think I’m a lunatic. Despite the screams, despite the howls, despite the heralded genocide. The co-pilots and the dreamers haven’t listened to me either. How can the human soul be such a ridiculous simpleton? Only the Octo-pilot believes I speak the truth and that the soldiers of Christ are preparing a treacherous blow for us. But he can’t shirk his duties. He alone can bring the ship back safe and sound, and he has to start from the principle that this is what they will allow him to do and what he will do.
(…) A planning meeting for the return trip has just been set. Paradise has to be earned and the crew has certainly not earned it. A psycho-machine and two co-pilots have, however, asked to be baptized. Little by little the army of God is forming its own crew. It’ll be slightly more difficult with the scanners. They’re not always the cleverest, but they don’t rally around any cause. Space is infinite and worthy of their freedom. They won’t give it up at any price. I simply hope that it won’t cost them their lives.
(…) I’ve made my decision. And Lisandra is coming with me. I run the risk of no longer being able to shoot out into the four corners of space in an astroplasm of light. Love makes my choice easy. I love Lisandra and she loves me. That’s what we are going to preserve first.
(…) Little Station Who Smiles in the Clouds is a Relay, a key you might say, in the Kaliandran organization. She is hyper-telepathic and therefore capable of harboring souls. She’s opened the doors of her familial den to us. Seen from the ground it’s not very awe-inspiring, but it’s huge. Little Station extends over a dozen trees. A veritable vegetal palace…
(…) The shots lasted all morning. Little Station tried to give us an account of the “meeting”, but she doesn’t have the words to describe the horror of carnage, the violence of the massacre. She doesn’t understand the exorcisms that mutilate her peers. She understands even less the religious cannibalism that makes species kill each other. Little by little she’s discovering evil and I suddenly realize that Kaliandra really is Paradise, and that it should remain so.
(…) There isn’t one survivor. The team has been entirely decimated. They hounded the last dreamers and the last co-pilots into the heart of the jungle. All this had been planned from the beginning. Paradise is reserved for the elect and all those who refuse to be baptized under the sign of Christ the Redeemer have no right to it. The chosen people will be pure or will not exist. Everything is perfect now. The council of wise men presided over by Cardinal Longkwist has just formalized the discovery of Paradise. I wasn’t able to hear his speech, but I can easily imagine it: “The concordance with the sacred texts is amazing. Only the ‘big bears’ pose some problems while serving as ‘receptacles’ for demonic forces that oppose the creation of a new Eden. But the Inquisition has got its old breath back and is going to take care of eradicating the phenomenon. The settlers are going to be led to a place propitious for building the first paradisiacal city and a quantonaut is going to be dispatched to Earth to inform the Prophet… Praise be to him!” My God! – the true one who commands nothing, orders nothing, demands nothing, doesn’t want to be worshipped, is not jealous, is not a warrior, designates no people as elect, takes no sides for good or evil, the one who leaves us in peace – How have we come to this point? How could I have contributed to so much ignominy?… I can’t imagine a single second of my time not dedicated to finding a way to put a stop to this massacre…
The Kaliandrans were incapable of fighting, incapable of harming a fly unless they needed to eat it. The souls, however, were capable of everything; the souls were pranksters and they loved the Kaliandrans. To take control of their hosts to play at toy soldiers was a picnic for them.
Donatello’s plan was simple and brilliant. The soldiers of the Oekumen had absolutely no fear of these “big bears” who were ready to let themselves be killed without lifting a finger. The Kynsos Marcusbi II was only being watched by two guards and inside there were only a handful of soldiers controlling the performance of the quantonaut.
“A dozen Kaliandrans guided by good souls can take the vessel by surprise,” Donatello offered, his eyes sparkling with suppressed rage.
“And for what? With no pilot, no co-pilots and no dreamers we’ll barely be able to get it off the ground!” That was Kougar who monopolized the conservation. Little Station and Isadora were gabbing in their corner.
“That’s good. That’s even perfect. Get it off the ground… That’s all I ask.” Donatello was a bit excited and could not stand still.
Lisandra stood behind him to massage his neck. “Angel’s plan is simple and deadly, but it’s all we have. This planet has to be saved, you know. We have no choice.”
Donatello kissed Lisandra and then turned toward Kougar-Little Station. He took them by the shoulder and led them to the den’s opening.
At the bottom of the valley, the Cathedral seemed hardly bigger than a tennis ball and next to it, the Kynsos Marcusbi II was the size of a golf ball.
“The Kynsos Marcusbi II gets a few hundred meters off the ground and then we cut the motors. It crashes into the Cathedral and there you go. No more soldiers, no more settlers. Finished. Kaliandra will be able to be cradled by the Moon again.”
Kougar automatically lifted his head to contemplate the huge reddish satellite that floated overhead.
“I had some trouble making Little Station understand that it was going to be necessary to ‘eliminate’ living beings to return everything to order,” Donatello pointed out.
“I don’t like that expression.”
“That ‘return everything to order’… I kind of think that order is on the side of the Oekumen. Order is the opposite of freedom. This planet is free. At least for the moment. Free to evolve as it desires. And no monstrous religious dictator like Elric P. Mandelstrom is going to prevent that.”
Isadora had taken over the vocal cords and she was in arms. Her private conversation with Little Station had apparently stirred her up.
Donatello flaunted a surprising smile. “I think we’re finally on the same wavelength.”
“That remains to be seen. Who’ll make up your famous team of rebel souls?” That was Kougar again.
“It’s already set. Little Station is in charge. You know, telepathy makes things a lot easier. Those Who Harbor Souls are rare, but she has located a dozen in the surrounding area. They’re ready to join us at once. And their souls are angels.”
One of Little Station’s guests made her smile.
“And who’s going to take care of the spaceship? Even in normal space to make such an engine take-off requires a certain knowledge of piloting!”
For the first time, Donatello seemed concerned. “I think that the souls can get by.”
“You think that…” Little Station’s face turned indefinable. There and then the neurophysiologic consensus went awry. Isadora again took the floor and cut short the whole polemic.
“I have a pilot’s license.”
“Who’s speaking?” Donatello was wide-eyed. The excitement was making his nostrils flare. He looked like a bull about to charge.
“It’s me, Isadora. The little aristocrat is barely smarter than a metabiote in an incubator. I got my license on the sly. My father couldn’t really tell the difference between a pilot and a driver. When I crashed a Thunderbird during the Great Belt Race the bill was pretty steep and my father found out that a spaceship pilot could cost a lot more than a simple shuttle driver. But our status wasn’t really affected. I did other races. With his blessing, of course.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me that?”
“Because a daddy’s girl, and a gifted one, seemed a little unwarranted among a bunch of hicks…”
“A bunch of…”
Little Station gently pushed her guests into a corner of her mind to quell the nascent argument.
“Yes, the souls are going to eliminate the damned gesticulators and I’Isadora will guide the dreamers’ bird over the big cut stone then I’Isadora will make it fall onto the stone, and the Damned will disappear from Cradlemoon.”
“Little Station is going to die.”
“She knows it… We have already spoken of that.”
“I’Isadora will do what is necessary for Cradlemoon to be free.”
“And we… The umbiplasms are already a little tired… The explosion could be fatal to them…”
“You don’t have to stay. Little Station is not holding you back. I can pilot the ship alone.”
“I’ve never heard anything so stupid. Without me, you couldn’t return to your body. The umbiplasm is not going to retract by magic. We’re far, maybe very far away and only an experienced scanner can bring us back.”
“So you’re staying?”
“I really think I have no choice.”
“Who are you doing this for?”
“Kougar loves Isadora like a roveler loves its bowerlet. He cannot lose her.”
“I think you have your answer…” Kougar had spoken without really realizing it.
“What answer?” asked Donatello.
“We’re going to knock these tin soldiers down,” Kougar sighed out.
(…) The quantonaut has not yet split in the wormhole to spread the good word to the other big, fat, filthy, oozing worm. The settlers have not yet swarmed into the four corners of the planet… But all this can’t be long in coming. In less than a day, maybe an hour. And by then it’ll be too late. But they’ve just left. Twelve Kaliandrans stuffed with souls ready to cross swords on the order of Little Station’s astroplasm. With such a team we can’t fail!
Kougar knew absolutely nothing about what souls really were, but they proved to be formidably effective. The soldiers of the Oekumen were quickly liquidated. Throats slit in a flash or even cleanly decapitated. There was not a single shot fired, not the least alarm set off. True professionalism. Maybe they were the emanation of eternal warriors who changed bodies at will and from time to time came to take a break on Kaliandra. But this was no time to ramble. Little Station’s body was entirely at Isadora’s orders and he had to admit that she was doing quite well. Little Station was right. He was in love. It seemed totally unlikely to him, but he could not stop thinking about her. He wanted to see her again there, right away, take her in his arms, hold her tight and make love to her.
The ship’s ventral nozzles were belching out. In the cockpit they heard only a low humming, but outside was a tornado beginning to roar. The cockpit was a transparent semi-sphere stuck to the front end of the immense space vessel, a wart on a giant’s chin, and they could observe the commotion that infected the Cathedral. Lights went on, others went off, soldiers beginning to bustle on the walkways and sloped roofs; others set up arms in the inner courtyards and enclosed gardens. A few volleys were fired and then the silhouettes grew inordinately bigger. The Cathedral shot up toward them. Kougar and Isadora hugged each other around Little Station’s thought, and then the world exploded.
Kougar regained consciousness in a mediblock. He opened his eyes and saw Cassandra’s face. Her deep green eyes. He smiled at her, just before realizing that they were murky green, and bluish, like the Chimera showed when she was sad.
He leapt up, tearing out some probes in the process.
Cassandra sat down gently beside him. “There’s been a problem… Her umbilic broke… She didn’t come back. And you were cataleptic…”
Kougar took shelter against the silky hair of Cassandra’s belly. He wept long, then gently pushed the Chimera away and tore out the last probes that connected him to the mediblock.
“You shouldn’t do that, Kougar. You’re still very weak. But tell me what happened.”
Kougar reeled a little, then found his balance. “Later… First I have to go find her.”
From that day on, he did not stop traveling. What the company at the beginning took as an excess of zeal was only a pretext for going on a quest for Isadora’s astroplasm. When Teratek realized this, it fired him on the spot. The story that he told Cassandra spread across the Galaxy in a few months. Isadora and Kougar became a mythic couple for scanners. And the idea that they were practicing not only a job, but also an art, and that this art was not just a juicy source of income but also a way to bring the secrets of the universe to light slowly caught on.
A few years later, the son of Kougar and Isadora would crown this development by creating the Guild of Scanners. But for the moment, he was still only a bunch of cells in his mother’s belly. In Isadora’s belly, beautiful and radiant in her cryostasic tank.
The two scanners had made love only once and it was at that moment that Isadora’s hormonal regulator had decided to break down. That goes to show that nature is not the only thing that can do a great deal of things greatly. Chance proved it again when the quantonaut who was supposed to inform Elric Mandelstrom arrived in a phase of quantum decoherence at the very moment when the Kynsos Marcusbi II was crashing into the Cathedral. It dragged in its wake a few blocks of stone and scrap iron. On the other end of the quantum well, the whole of it tore apart the residence of Elric P. Mandelstrom and crushed its principal occupant, Peter III to his friends.
But nothing could relieve Kougar’s grief.
Fifteen years of good and faithful service on the orders of Teratek had allowed him to save up a pretty penny. He bought Isadora’s body, cryostasic tank and all, the latest generation traveling skin and a quart of Kinsokaine, enough to travel through the universe and its environs for a hundred years.
And he was ready to sign up for a second century if it was necessary…
(…) I think that good and evil are archaic terms. The souls have a warrior spirit and the peaceful Kaliandrans are their hosts. But they’re free on both sides. Free to evolve as they desire and not according to a prefabricated doctrine…
(…) The astroplasms of some scanners have come to visit me. They’ve created a guild and are free now… them too… Free to explore the cosmos in search of their Grail. I love Kaliandra; I love Lisandra; I’m happy to have lived and still be living on this planet, but I’m a scanner and the stars are constantly calling me. Nothing can ever replace the stars’ embrace.
His name is Kougar Khalan, like his father, and tears stream down his emaciated face. He closes the notebook with a trembling hand, holds it out to the old man sitting next to him and then stares at the bottom of the valley.
“The Cathedral was standing there, wasn’t it?
“Yes. If you want, I’ll take you there. You can still see some stones and scraps of iron covered with vegetation.”
“No. Thank you, but I don’t think I’ll be staying here long. I just wanted to…”
“Verify that it was not just a myth. That your mother and father really were heroes?” offered Donatello affectionately and completely free of cynicism.
Kougar Khalan Jr. pursed his lips, pouted amusedly and then nodded his head. “Yes… That’s it exactly. I wanted to verify that the myth wasn’t born out of a simple rumor. That my father hadn’t been the victim of a delirious hallucination.”
“I understand… That’s human. And how do you feel?”
“I’m proud. Really. I’m proud.”
Donatello smiled. “The strange thing is that I never saw them. I lived through a marvelous adventure with them and I don’t even know what they look like.”
Kougar Jr. took out a little black sphere from his pouch. “Take it. It’s a virtex of my parents’ wedding. My mother is a little stiff in her tank, but she’s beautiful with her round belly. It was a week before my birth. I thought you might like it.”
Donatello took the black sphere from the trembling hand. He was clearly touched.
Kougar Jr. made as if to close his pouch and then reopened it. “Ah, I forgot…”
He took out a vial of Kinsokaine and a traveling skin still wrapped up. “In case you ever want to get a little air. No matter how pleasant a planet may be, it always ends up weighing down on you…”
Donatello had tears in his eyes. He tilted his head back and the stars exploded inside his skull.
Jacques Barbéri is a French author of more than fifteen novels and numerous short stories. He has been writing his radical visions on the literary edge of France since the 80s. Thrillers, science fiction, fantasy or the fringes of literature, nothing is off limits to his perpetually mutating imagination. He is also a musician (with the group Palo Alto), screenplay writer and translator. A dozen of his short stories have been translated into English, including one in The Big Book of Science Fiction (ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer)