Science Fiction & Fantasy

FEAR CITY by F. Paul Wilson

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Fiction

The Streets of Ashkelon

Somewhere above, hidden by the eternal clouds of Wesker’s World, a thunder rumbled and grew. Trader Garth stopped suddenly when he heard it, his boots sinking slowly into the muck, and cupped his good ear to catch the sound. It swelled and waned in the thick atmosphere, growing louder.

“That noise is the same as the noise of your sky-ship,” Itin said, with stolid Wesker logicality, slowly pulverizing the idea in his mind and turning over the bits one by one for closer examination. “But your ship is still sitting where you landed it. It must be, even though we cannot see it, because you are the only one who can operate it. And even if anyone else could operate it we would have heard it rising into the sky. Since we did not, and if this sound is a sky-ship sound, then it must mean—”

“Yes, another ship,” Garth said, too absorbed in his own thoughts to wait for the laborious Weskerian chains of logic to clank their way through to the end. Of course it was another spacer, it had been only a matter of time before one appeared, and undoubtedly this one was homing on the S.S radar reflector as he had done. His own ship would show up clearly on the newcomer’s screen and they would probably set down as close to it as they could.

“You better go ahead, Itin,” he said. “Use the water so you can get to the village quickly. Tell everyone to get back into the swamps, well clear of the hard ground. That ship is landing on instruments and anyone underneath at touchdown is going to be cooked.”

This immediate threat was clear enough to the little Wesker am­phibian. Before Garth had finished speaking Itin’s ribbed ears had folded like a bat’s wings and he slipped silently into the nearby ca­nal. Garth squelched on through the mud, making as good time as he could over the clinging surface. He had just reached the fringes of the village clearing when the rumbling grew to a head-splitting roar and the spacer broke through the low-hanging layer of clouds above. Garth shielded his eyes from the down-reaching tongue of flame and examined the growing form of the gray-black ship with mixed feelings.

After almost a standard year on Wesker’s World he had to fight down a longing for human companionship of any kind. While this buried fragment of herd-spirit chattered for the rest of the monkey tribe, his trader’s mind was busily drawing a line under a column of figures and adding up the total. This could very well be another trader’s ship, and if it was his monopoly of the Wesker’s trade was at an end. Then again, this might not be a trader at all, which was the reason he stayed in the shelter of the giant fern and loosened his gun in its holster. The ship baked dry a hundred square meters of mud, the roaring blast died, and the landing feet crunched down through the crackling crust. Metal creaked and settled into place while the cloud of smoke and steam slowly drifted lower in the humid air.

“Garth—you native-cheating extortionist—where are you?” the ship’s speaker boomed. The lines of the spacer had looked only slightly familiar, but there was no mistaking the rasping tones of that voice. Garth had a twisted smile when he stepped out into the open and whistled shrilly through two fingers. A directional microphone ground out of its casing on the ship’s fin and turned in his direction.

“What are you doing here, Singh?” he shouted towards the mike. “Too crooked to find a planet of your own and have to come here to steal an honest trader’s profits?”

“Honest!” the amplified voice roared. “This from the man who has been in more jails than cathouses—and that a goodly number in itself, I do declare. Sorry, friend of my youth, but I cannot join you in ex­ploiting this aboriginal pesthole. I am on course to a more fairly at­mosphered world where a fortune is waiting to be made. I only stopped here since an opportunity presented, to turn an honest credit by running a taxi service. I bring you friendship, the perfect compan­ionship, a man in a different line of business who might help you in yours. I’d come out and say hello myself, except I would have to decon for biologicals. I’m cycling the passenger through the lock so I hope you won’t mind helping with his luggage.”

At least there would be no other trader on the planet now, that worry was gone. But Garth still wondered what sort of passenger would be taking one-way passage to an undeveloped world. And what was behind that concealed hint of merriment in Singh’s voice? He walked around to the far side of the spacer where the ramp had dropped, and looked up at the man in the cargo lock who was wres­tling ineffectually with a large crate. The man turned towards him and Garth saw the clerical dog-collar and knew just what it was Singh had been chuckling about.

“What are you doing here?” Garth asked, and in spite of his at­tempt at self-control he snapped the words. If the man noticed this he ignored it, because he was still smiling and putting out his hand as he came down the ramp.

“Father Mark,” he said, “of the Missionary Society of Brothers. I’m very pleased to meet—”

“I said what are you doing here.” Garth’s voice was under control now, quiet and cold. He knew what had to be done, and it must be done quickly or not at all.

“That should be obvious,” Father Mark said, his good nature still unruffled. “Our missionary society has raised funds to send spiritual emissaries to alien worlds for the first time. I was lucky enough—”

“Take your luggage and get back into the ship. You’re not wanted here—and have no permission to land. You’ll be a liability and there is no one on Wesker’s World to take care of you. Get back into the ship.”

“I don’t know who you are sir, or why you are lying to me,” the priest said. He was still calm but the smile was gone. “But I have studied galactic law and the history of this planet very well. There are no diseases or beasts here that I should have any particular fear of. It is also an open planet, and until the Space Survey changes that status I have as much right to be here as you do.”

The man was of course right, but Garth couldn’t let him know that. He had been bluffing, hoping the priest didn’t know his rights. But he did. There was only one distasteful course left for him, and he had better do it while there was still time.

“Get back in that ship,” he shouted, not hiding his anger now. With a smooth motion his gun was out of the holster and the pitted black muzzle only inches from the priest’s stomach. The man’s face turned white, but he did not move.

“What the hell are you doing, Garth?!” Singh’s shocked voice grated from the speaker. “The guy paid his fare and you have no rights at all to throw him off the planet.”

“I have this right,” Garth said, raising his gun and sighting between the priest’s eyes. “I give him thirty seconds to get back aboard the ship or I pull the trigger.”

“Well, I think you are either off your head or playing a joke,” Singh’s exasperated voice rasped down at them. “If it is a joke, it is in bad taste. But either way you’re not getting away with it. Two can play at that game—only I can play it better.”

There was the rumble of heavy bearings and the remote-controlled four-gun turret on the ship’s side rotated and pointed at Garth. “Now—down gun and give Father Mark a hand with the luggage,” the speaker commanded, a trace of humor back in the voice now. “As much as I would like to help, Old Friend, I cannot. I feel it is time you had a chance to talk to the father; after all, I have had the op­portunity of speaking with him all the way from Earth.”

Garth jammed the gun back into the holster with an acute feeling of loss. Father Mark stepped forward, the winning smile back now and a Bible, taken from a pocket of his robe, in his raised hand. “My son—” he said.

“I’m not your son,” was all Garth could choke out as the bitterness and defeat welled up within him. His fist drew back as the anger rose, and the best he could do was open the fist so he struck only with the flat of his hand. Still the blow sent the priest crashing to the ground and hurled the white pages of the book splattering into the thick mud.

Itin and the other Weskers had watched everything with seemingly emotionless interest. Garth made no attempt to answer their unspo­ken questions. He started towards his house, but turned back when he saw they were still unmoving.

“A new man has come,” he told them. “He will need help with the things he has brought. If he doesn’t have any place for them, you can put them in the big warehouse until he has a place of his own.”

He watched them waddle across the clearing towards the ship, then went inside and gained a certain satisfaction from slamming the door hard enough to crack one of the panes. There was an equal amount of painful pleasure in breaking out one of the remaining bottles of Irish whiskey that he had been saving for a special occasion. Well this was special enough, though not really what he had had in mind. The whiskey was good and burned away some of the bad taste in his mouth, but not all of it. If his tactics had worked, success would have justified everything. But he had failed and in addition to the pain of failure there was the acute feeling that he had made a horse’s ass out of himself. Singh had blasted off without any goodbyes. There was no telling what sense he had made of the whole matter, though he would surely carry some strange stories back to the trader’s lodge. Well, that could be worried about the next time Garth signed in. Right now he had to go about setting things right with the mission­ary. Squinting out through the rain he saw the man struggling to erect a collapsible tent while the entire population of the village stood in ordered ranks and watched. Naturally none of them offered to help.

By the time the tent was up and the crates and boxes stowed inside it the rain had stopped. The level of fluid in the bottle was a good bit lower and Garth felt more like facing up to the unavoidable meeting. In truth, he was looking forward to talking to the man. This whole nasty business aside, after an entire solitary year any human com­panionship looked good. Will you join me now for dinner? John Garth, he wrote on the back of an old invoice. But maybe the guy was too frightened to come? Which was no way to start any kind of relationship. Rummaging under the bunk, he found a box that was big enough and put his pistol inside. Itin was of course waiting out­side the door when he opened it, since this was his tour as Knowledge Collector. He handed him the note and box.

“Would you take these to the new man,” he said.

“Is the new man’s name New Man?” Itin asked.

“No, it’s not!” Garth snapped. “His name is Mark. But I’m only asking you to deliver this, not get involved in conversation.”

As always when he lost his temper, the literal-minded Weskers won the round. “You are not asking for conversation,” Itin said slowly, “but Mark may ask for conversation. And others will ask me his name; if I do not know his na—”

The voice cut off as Garth slammed the door. This didn’t work in the long run either because next time he saw Itin—a day, a week, or even a month later—the monologue would be picked up on the very word it had ended and the thought rambled out to its last frayed end. Garth cursed under his breath and poured water over a pair of the tastier concentrates that he had left.

“Come in,” he said when there was a quiet knock on the door. The priest entered and held out the box with the gun.

“Thank you for the loan, Mr. Garth, I appreciate the spirit that made you send it. I have no idea of what caused the unhappy affair when I landed, but I think it would be best forgotten if we are going to be on this planet together for any length of time.”

“Drink?” Garth asked, taking the box and pointing to the bottle on the table. He poured two glasses full and handed one to the priest. “That’s about what I had in mind, but I still owe you an explanation of what happened out there.” He scowled into his glass for a second, then raised it to the other man. “It’s a big universe and I guess we have to make out as best we can. Here’s to Sanity.”

“God be with you,” Father Mark said, and raised his glass as well. “Not with me or with this planet,” Garth said firmly. “And that’s the crux of the matter.” He half-drained the glass and sighed.

“Do you say that to shock me?” the priest asked with a smile. “I assure you that it doesn’t.”

“Not intended to shock. I meant it quite literally. I suppose I’m what you would call an atheist, so revealed religion is no concern of mine. While these natives, simple and unlettered Stone Age types that they are, have managed to come this far with no superstitions or traces of deism whatsoever. I had hoped that they might continue that way.”

“What are you saying?” The priest frowned. “Do you mean they have no gods, no belief in the hereafter? They must die . . . ?”

“Die they do, and to dust returneth. Like the rest of the animals. They have thunder, trees, and water without having thunder-gods, tree sprites, or water nymphs. They have no ugly little gods, taboos, or spells to hag-ride and limit their lives. They are the only primitive people I have ever encountered that are completely free of supersti­tion and appear to be much happier and sane because of it. I just wanted to keep them that way.”

“You wanted to keep them from God—from salvation?” The priest’s eyes widened and he recoiled slightly.

“No,” Garth said. “I wanted to keep them from superstition until they knew more and could think about it realistically without being absorbed and perhaps destroyed by it.”

“You’re being insulting to the Church, sir, to equate it with su­perstition . . .”

“Please,” Garth said, raising his hand. “No theological arguments. I don’t think your society footed the bill for this trip just to attempt to convert me. Just accept the fact that my beliefs have been arrived at through careful thought over a period of years, and no amount of undergraduate metaphysics will change them. I’ll promise not to try and convert you—if you will do the same for me.”

“Agreed, Mr. Garth. As you have reminded me, my mission here is to save these souls, and that is what I must do. But why should my work disturb you so much that you try and keep me from landing? Even threaten me with your gun, and—” The priest broke off and looked into his glass.

“And even slug you?” Garth asked, suddenly frowning. “There was no excuse for that, and I would like to say that I’m sorry. Plain bad manners and an even worse temper. Live alone long enough and you find yourself doing that kind of thing.” He brooded down at his big hands where they lay on the table, reading memories into the scars and calluses patterned there. “Let’s just call it frustration, for lack of a better word. In your business you must have had a lot of chances to peep into the darker places in men’s minds and you should know a bit about motives and happiness. I have had too busy a life to ever consider settling down and raising a family, and right up until re­cently I never missed it. Maybe leakage radiation is softening up my brain, but I had begun to think of these furry and fishy Weskers as being a little like my own children, that I was somehow responsible to them.”

“We are all His children,” Father Mark said quietly.

“Well, here are some of His children that can’t even imagine His existence,” Garth said, suddenly angry at himself for allowing gentler emotions to show through. Yet he forgot himself at once, leaning forward with the intensity of his feelings. “Can’t you realize the im­portance of this? Live with these Weskers a while and you will dis­cover a simple and happy life that matches the state of grace you people are always talking about. They get pleasure from their lives—and cause no one pain. By circumstances they have evolved on an almost barren world, so have never had a chance to grow out of a physical Stone Age culture. But mentally they are our match—or per­haps better. They have all learned my language so I can easily explain the many things they want to know. Knowledge and the gaining of knowledge gives them real satisfaction. They tend to be exasperating at times because every new fact must be related to the structure of all other things, but the more they learn the faster this process be­comes. Someday they are going to be man’s equal in every way, per­haps surpass us. If—would you do me a favor?”

“Whatever I can.”

“Leave them alone. Or teach them if you must—history and sci­ence, philosophy, law, anything that will help them face the realities of the greater universe they never even knew existed before. But don’t confuse them with your hatreds and pain, guilt, sin, and punishment. Who knows the harm—”

“You are being insulting, sir!” the priest said, jumping to his feet. The top of his grey head barely came to the massive spaceman’s chin, yet he showed no fear in defending what he believed. Garth, standing now himself, was no longer the penitent. They faced each other in anger, as men have always stood, unbending in the defense of that which they think right.

“Yours is the insult,” Garth shouted. “The incredible egotism to feel that your derivative little mythology, differing only slightly from the thousands of others that still burden men, can do anything but confuse their still fresh minds. Don’t you realize that they believe in truth—and have never heard of such a thing as a lie? They have not been trained yet to understand that other kinds of minds can think differently from theirs. Will you spare them this . . . ?”

“I will do my duty which is His will, Mr. Garth. These are God’s creatures here, and they have souls. I cannot shirk my duty, which is to bring them His word so that they may be saved and enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”

When the priest opened the door the wind caught it and blew it wide. He vanished into the storm-swept darkness and the door swung back and forth and a splatter of raindrops blew in. Garth’s boots left muddy footprints when he closed the door, shutting out the sight of Itin sitting patiently and uncomplaining in the storm, hoping only that Garth might stop for a moment and leave with him some of the wonderful knowledge of which he had so much.

By unspoken consent that first night was never mentioned again. After a few days of loneliness, made worse because each knew of the other’s proximity, they found themselves talking on carefully neutral grounds. Garth slowly packed and stowed away his stock and never admitted that his work was finished and he could leave at any time. He had a fair amount of interesting drugs and botanicals that would fetch a good price. And the Wesker artifacts were sure to create a sensation in the sophisticated galactic market. Crafts on the planet here had been limited before his arrival, mostly pieces of carving painfully chipped into the hard wood with fragments of stone. He had supplied tools and a stock of raw metal from his own supplies, noth­ing more than that. In a few months the Weskers had not only learned to work with the new materials, but had translated their own designs and forms into the most alien—but most beautiful—artifacts that he had ever seen. All he had to do was release these on the market to create a primary demand, then return for a new supply. The Weskers wanted only books and tools and knowledge in return, and through their own efforts he knew they would pull themselves into the ga­lactic union.

This is what Garth had hoped. But a wind of change was blowing through the settlement that had grown up around his ship. No longer was he the center of attention and focal point of the village life. He had to grin when he thought of his fall from power; yet there was very little humor in the smile. Serious and attentive Weskers still took turns of duty as Knowledge Collectors, but their recording of dry facts was in sharp contrast to the intellectual hurricane that sur­rounded the priest.

Where Garth had made them work for each book and machine, the priest gave freely. Garth had tried to be progressive in his supply of knowledge, treating them as bright but unlettered children. He had wanted them to walk before they could run, to master one step before going on to the next.

Father Mark simply brought them the benefits of Christianity. The only physical work he required was the construction of a church, a place of worship and learning. More Weskers had appeared out of the limitless planetary swamps and within days the roof was up, sup­ported on a framework of poles. Each morning the congregation worked a little while on the walls, then hurried inside to learn the all-promising, all-encompassing, all-important facts about the uni­verse.

Garth never told the Weskers what he thought about their new interest, and this was mainly because they had never asked him. Pride or honor stood in the way of his grabbing a willing listener and pour­ing out his grievances. Perhaps it would have been different if Itin was on Collecting duty, he was the brightest of the lot, but Itin had been rotated the day after the priest had arrived and Garth had not talked to him since.

It was a surprise then when after seventeen of the trebly-long Wes­ker days, he found a delegation at his doorstep when he emerged after breakfast. Itin was their spokesman, and his mouth was open slightly. Many of the other Weskers had their mouths open as well, one even appearing to be yawning, clearly revealing the double row of sharp teeth and the purple-black throat. The mouths impressed Garth as to the seriousness of the meeting: this was the one Wesker expression he had learned to recognize. An open mouth indicated some strong emotion: happiness, sadness, anger, he could never be really sure which. The Weskers were normally placid and he had never seen enough open mouths to tell what was causing them. But he was sur­rounded by them now.

“Will you help us, Garth?” Itin said. “We have a question.”

“I’ll answer any questions you ask,” Garth said, with more than a hint of misgiving. “What is it?”

“Is there a God?”

“What do you mean by ‘God’?” Garth asked in turn. What should he tell them? What had been going on in their minds that they should come to him with this question?

“God is our Father in Heaven, who made us all and protects us. Whom we pray to for aid, and if we are Saved will find a place—”

“That’s enough,” Garth said. “There is no God.”

All of them had their mouths open now, even Itin, as they looked at Garth and thought about his answer. The rows of pink teeth would have been frightening if he hadn’t known these creatures so well. For one instant he wondered if perhaps they had been already indoctri­nated and looked upon him as a heretic, but he brushed the thought away.

“Thank you,” Itin said, and they turned and left.

Though the morning was still cool, Garth noticed that he was sweating and wondered why.

The reaction was not long in coming. Itin returned that same af­ternoon. “Will you come to the church?” he asked. “Many of the things that we study are difficult to learn, but none as difficult as this. We need your help because we must hear you and Father Mark talk together. This is because he says one thing is true and you say another is true and both cannot be true at the same time. We must find out what is true.”

“I’ll come, of course,” Garth said, trying to hide the sudden feel­ing of elation. He had done nothing, but the Weskers had come to him anyway. There could still be grounds for hope that they might yet be free.

It was hot inside the church, and Garth was surprised at the num­ber of Weskers who were there, more than he had seen gathered at any one time before. There were many open mouths. Father Mark sat at a table covered with books. He looked unhappy but didn’t say any­thing when Garth came in. Garth spoke first.

“I hope you realize this is their idea—that they came to me of their own free will and asked me to come here?”

“I know that,” the priest said resignedly. “At times they can be very difficult. But they are learning and want to believe, and that is what is important.”

“Father Mark, Trader Garth, we need your help,” Itin said. “You both know many things that we do not know. You must help us come to religion, which is not an easy thing to do.” Garth started to say something, then changed his mind. Itin went on. “We have read the bibles and all the books that Father Mark gave us, and one thing is clear. We have discussed this and we are all agreed. These books are very different from the ones that Trader Garth gave us. In Trader Garth’s books there is the universe which we have not seen, and it goes on without God, for He is mentioned nowhere, we have searched very carefully. In Father Mark’s books He is everywhere and nothing can go without Him. One of these must be right and the other must be wrong. We do not know how this can be, but after we find out which is right then perhaps we will know. If God does not exist . . .”

“Of course He exists, my children,” Father Mark said in a voice of heartfelt intensity. “He is our Father in Heaven who has created us all . . .”

“Who created God?” Itin asked and the murmur ceased and every one of the Weskers watched Father Mark intensely. He recoiled a bit under the impact of their eyes, then smiled.

“Nothing created God, since He is the Creator. He always was—”

“If He always was in existence—why cannot the universe have always been in existence? Without having had a creator?” Itin broke in with a rush of words. The importance of the question was obvious. The priest answered slowly, with infinite patience.

“Would that the answers were that simple, my children. But even the scientists do not agree about the creation of the universe. While they doubt—we who have seen the light know. We can see the mir­acle of creation all about us. And how can there be a creation without a Creator? That is He, our Father, our God in Heaven. I know you have doubts and that is because you have souls and free will. Still the answer is simple. Have faith, that is all you need. Just believe.”

“How can we believe without proof?”

“If you cannot see that this world itself is proof of His existence, then I say to you that belief needs no proof—if you have faith!”

A babble of voices arose in the room and more of the Wesker mouths were open now as they tried to force their thoughts through the tangled skein of words and separate the thread of truth.

“Can you tell us, Garth?” Itin asked, and the sound of his voice quieted the hubbub.

“I can tell you to use the scientific method which can examine all things—including itself—and give you answers that can prove the truth or falsity of any statement.”

“That is what we must do,” Itin said. “We had reached the same conclusion.” He held a thick book before him and a ripple of nods ran across the watchers. “We have been studying the Bible as Father Mark told us to do, and we have found the answer. God will make a miracle for us, thereby proving that He is watching us. And by this sign we will know Him and go to Him.”

“This is a sign of false pride,” Father Mark said. “God needs no miracles to prove His existence.”

“But we need a miracle!” Itin shouted, and though he wasn’t hu­man there was still the cry of need in his voice. “We have read here of many smaller miracles, loaves, fishes, wine, snakes—many of them, for much smaller reasons. Now all He need do is make a mir­acle and He will bring us all to Him—the wonder of an entire new world worshiping at His throne, as you have told us, Father Mark. And you have told us how important this is. We have discussed this and find that there is only one miracle that is best for this kind of thing.”

His boredom and amused interest in the incessant theological wrangling drained from Garth in an instant. He had not been really thinking or he would have realized where all this was leading. By turning slightly he could see the illustration in the Bible where Itin held it open, and knew in advance what picture it was. He rose slowly from his chair, as if stretching, and turned to the priest behind him.

“Get ready!” he whispered. “Get out the back and get to the ship, I’ll keep them busy here. I don’t think they’ll harm—”

“What do you mean . . . ?” Father Mark asked, blinking in surprise.

“Get out, you fool!” Garth hissed. “What miracle do you think they mean? What miracle is supposed to have converted the world to Christianity?”

“No!” Father Mark said. “It cannot be. It just cannot—”

“GET MOVING!” Garth shouted, dragging the priest from the chair and hurling him towards the rear wall. Father Mark stumbled to a halt, turned back. Garth leaped for him, but it was already too late. The amphibians were small, but there were so many of them. Garth lashed out and his fist struck Itin, hurling him back into the crowd. The others came on as he fought his way towards the priest. He beat at them but it was like struggling against the waves. The furry, musky bodies washed over and engulfed him. He struggled un­til they tied him, and he still struggled until they beat on his head until he stopped. Then they pulled him outside, where he could only lie in the rain and curse and watch.

Of course the Weskers were marvelous craftsmen, and everything had been constructed down to the last detail, following the illustra­tion in the Bible. There was the cross, planted firmly on the top of a small hill, the gleaming metal spikes, the hammer. Father Mark was stripped and draped in a carefully pleated loincloth. They led him out of the church and at the sight of the cross he almost fainted. After that he held his head high and determined to die as he had lived, with faith.

Yet this was hard. It was unbearable even for Garth, who only watched. It is one thing to talk of crucifixion and look at the gentle carved bodies in the dim light of prayer. It is another to see a man naked, ropes cutting into his skin where he hangs from a bar of wood. And to see the needle-tipped spike raised and placed against the soft flesh of his palm, to see the hammer come back with the calm delib­eration of an artisan’s measured stroke. To hear the thick sound of metal penetrating flesh.

Then to hear the screams.

Few are born to be martyrs and Father Mark was not one of them. With the first blows, the blood ran from his lips where his clenched teeth met. Then his mouth was wide and his head strained back and the awful guttural horror of his screams sliced through the susurra­tion of the falling rain. It resounded as a silent echo from the masses of watching Weskers, for whatever emotion opened their mouths was now tearing at their bodies with all its force, and row after row of gaping jaws reflected the crucified priest’s agony.

Mercifully he fainted as the last nail was driven home. Blood ran from the raw wounds, mixing with the rain to drip faintly pink from his feet as the life ran out of him. At this time, somewhere at this time, sobbing and tearing at his own bonds, numbed from the blows on the head, Garth lost consciousness.

He awoke in his own warehouse and it was dark. Someone was cutting away the woven ropes they had bound him with. The rain still dripped and splashed outside.

“Itin,” he said. It could be no one else.

“Yes,” the alien voice whispered back. “The others are all talking in the church. Lin died after you struck his head, and Inon is very sick. There are some that say you should be crucified too, and I think that is what will happen. Or perhaps killed by stoning on the head. They have found in the Bible where it says—”

“I know.” With infinite weariness. “An eye for an eye. You’ll find lots of things like that once you start looking.”

“You must go, you can get to your ship without anyone seeing you. There has been enough killing.” Itin as well spoke with a new­found weariness.

Garth experimented, pulling himself to his feet. He pressed his head to the rough wall until the nausea stopped.

“He’s dead.” He said it as a statement, not a question.

“Yes, some time ago. Or I could not have come away to see you.”

“And buried of course, or they wouldn’t be thinking about starting on me next.”

“And buried!” There was almost a ring of emotion in the alien’s voice, an echo of the dead priest’s. “He is buried and he will rise on High. It is written and that is the way it will happen. Father Mark will be so happy that it has happened like this.” The voice ended in a sound like a human sob, but of course it couldn’t have been that since Itin was alien, and not human at all. Garth painfully worked his way towards the door, leaning against the wall so he wouldn’t fall.

“We did the right thing, didn’t we?” Itin asked. There was no an­swer. “He will rise up, Garth, won’t he rise?”

Garth was at the door and enough light came from the brightly lit church to show his torn and bloody hands clutching at the frame. Itin’s face swam into sight close to his, and Garth felt the delicate, many-fingered hands with the sharp nails catch at his clothes.

“He will rise, won’t he, Garth?”

“No,” Garth said, “he is going to stay buried right where you put him. Nothing is going to happen, because he is dead and he is going to stay dead.”

The rain runneled through Itin’s fur and his mouth was opened so wide that he seemed to be screaming into the night. Only with effort could he talk, squeezing out the alien thoughts in an alien language.

“Then we will not be saved? We will not become pure?”

“You were pure,” Garth said, in a voice somewhere between a sob and a laugh. “That’s the horrible ugly dirty part of it. You were pure. Now you are—”

“Murderers,” Itin said, and the water ran down from his lowered head and streamed away into the darkness.

© 1962 Harry Harrison.
Originally published in New Worlds.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Harry Harrison

Harry HarrisonHarry Harrison began writing science fiction in the 1950s and is currently one of the top-selling SF authors around the world. Best known as the creator of the cosmic thief the Stainless Steel Rat, and for his Deathworld and West of Eden series, he is also the author of Make Room! Make Room!, which was turned into the movie Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson. His novels have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list and in 2009 he was awarded the Damon Knight SF Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction Writers of America.

9 Responses »

  1. such a wonderful story helps illustrate the true danger of the religion meme.

  2. The measure of a great sci-fi writer is that his stories stand the test of time. Harry Harrison wrote “The Streets Of Ashkelon” in 1962 yet no part of it sounds dated in 2012 fifty years later. I think the secret of sci-fi stories that hardly show their age is that their authors put in only enough science to locate the stories in the proper setting and genre, but never anything specific that can be negated in the coming years by advances in science and technology.

  3. Great story. I believe I read it many years ago, but it definitely stands the test of time. All the way through, you wonder how Harrison can provide a satisfying end with both humans standing by their convictions. He does, and it carries a terrific (in both senses) impact.

  4. As a science-loving Christian, I get exasperated sometimes by how many sci-fi stories are so thoroughly biased against religion. Of course there have been people who have perpetrated evil while claiming to represent God (see: Inquisition, Spanish), but there have been plenty of evil atheists too (see: Stalin, Josef). It’s not what you believe that determines whether you’re right or wrong, it’s how you act on that belief or disbelief. And yet so much science fiction mentions God, and immediately everyone associated with him is a villain. This story represents Garth and the natives as pure, free-thinking, completely good people, and the priest and his religion as horrible and corrupting. No middle ground, no gray areas. Before they know about the Bible, they’re 100% good. Afterwards, they become murderers.

    I don’t hate atheism, and I don’t believe Christianity to be flawless. I just wish authors would represent both sides more objectively, instead of routinely showing so much prejudice toward anyone who believes in God.

  5. I was disappointed that neither the end of the story nor the outro mentioned any of the flaws in Garth’s position, choosing instead to focus on how religion is “bad”. Wasn’t Garth the one who was this close (*make appropriate hand gesture*) to killing Fr. Mark at the beginning of the story? It’s okay to point guns at people as long as you aren’t religious. Wasn’t Garth the one who wanted to keep any information regarding God away from the knowledge-hungry natives just because he didn’t like them? The aliens are allowed to be free-thinkers, as long as they do it his way. Wasn’t it the scientific method and not faith that motivated the oh so pure natives to crucify Fr. Mark at the end? In fact, it was a distinct lack of that made them do it. Remind me again why religion is the bad guy here.

    • Religion is what gave them their ghoulish idea. They’d had science for a while and done nothing bad with it, though when faced with a specific fact about their new religion it motivated them to evil. But they’d have been able to handle religion if they’d been more familiar with the idea of deceit and with skepticism.

      Neither science or religion gave them enough of a moral framework (which they apparently didn’t completely lack before, it just wasn’t as sophisticates as the humans) to understand why what they were doing was wrong. I assert religion as the bigger offender overall, but both science and religion failed them.

  6. Vinny and Jonna, I don’t think “The Streets of Ashkelon” is biased against religion. Yes, one of the main characters, Garth, is anti-religion but on the whole the story is not anti-religion. It is, however, biased against human pride and arrogance, the idea that humanity has a monopoly of all the answers to the questions, including all the solutions to the problems, of the universe. Both Garth and Father Mark, each in his own way, attempt to introduce human knowledge and culture to a non-human, alien species in the belief that it is the altruistic and beneficial thing to do. But all they end up doing is thoroughly confuse the aliens and make their lives miserable.

  7. The moral, social, ethical foundations that allow either science or religion to be motivation for what we as relatively well-adjusted members of a complex society would perceive as good is not contained within either science or religion. That’s what I take to be the message of this story (having just listened to a recent Zizek lecture on Buddhism).

    I doesn’t matter which of the humans had gotten his message to the natives first. If they’d gotten religion first, instead of saying, “Hey, here’s another thing to test!” they’d have been like “Oh hey, we can test things, let’s test this thing we’ve been studying!”

    The natives didn’t have a concept of deception. Apparently the missionary didn’t impress it upon them (maybe by oversight, maybe out of fear that they’d reject his message, maybe because he thought that with faith it doesn’t matter). The trader didn’t do so, because he liked them as they were. They did apparently think it was a bad thing to kill someone…it seems the only piece missing for them to be appalled at their own actions was the idea that the missionary might have been wrong. Both of them made good-faith efforts to impress their systems of belief (or at least the portions that differed from one another) upon the natives, both ignored the shared beliefs that kept their differing beliefs from being forces for evil.

    If this story is anti-anything, it’s anti-colonialist. It’s against the kind of benevolent paternalistic attitude colonialists have sometimes had, where they mean well, they aren’t even trying to exploit the colonized people (and not every colonialist was or is…but all of those people were tools of the exploiters). It reminds me of a professor I had, who was from Singapore, of Indian descent. His first and last names were both common Anglophonic given names. He said that this, giving colonized peoples surnames that are usually given names, was a common colonialist practice to infantilize the colonized. And don’t names like that sound cute? (I think he was half joking about that, but it definitely does mark the colonized person as colonized.)

    Garth didn’t want to teach them about deception because he thought it was beautiful that they didn’t have the concept. He wasn’t considering their needs in the face of the certain arrival of new ideas that would complicate their intellectual lives. He made a deliberate choice to keep them ignorant. If anything he was more like a religious fundamentalist than Mark was. He was like a fundamentalist parent who keeps their daughter ignorant of sex out of some paternalistic belief that ignorance is somehow beautiful or better; then the daughter goes and gets knocked up. Mark was LESS guilty than Garth, because Mark, if he is like the serious Christians I’ve come across, probably believes that morality comes from a belief in God. Mark believes it isn’t necessary to teach morality, as if one has faith in God, morality inherently comes as a part of that. I’m guessing he doesn’t have children and never worked with children, because he doesn’t seem to realize that it takes a long time to develop that even if you grow up inundated in religion.

    Mark leaves them ignorant because he doesn’t understand that he is leaving them ignorant. Garth knows he is doing it, and while he doesn’t realize until too late what the consequences will be, he does it for his own benefit, not for the natives’ benefit.

    The story contains a condemnation of religion. Of the two ideologies here, religion is the bad guy. But of the two proponents here, Garth is the bad guy.

  8. The story is not about good guys and bad guys, of good science and bad religion, of colonialism or empire or obeying the Prime Directive. It is an allegory of The Fall. And it doesn’t matter whether the story in Genesis is true or not, because it is a universal to humanity. Every human being (and ETs are “human” in that sense also) does things which we regret, and that is what constitutes the Fall. Not religious, but meta-mythical (a Truth embodied in a sometimes silly story so it can be remembered.)

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