Let me put it one way—telling the Mysteries for you like beads, simply and straightforwardly—bicycle gears, pink foam, budget sheets, the itch of stars, presumption in a limousine, the dance of plasma, prizes, revisions, giggles, memories, Instruction, and necessary reticences. Have you understood yet?
• • • •
To put it another way, to help you on your path . . .
• • • •
“I wish you’d stop going on about space aliens,” Philip said. “Everyone else knows they’re just a fairy story; they laugh at you behind your back at school, you know.”
The new bicycle he had got for his twelfth birthday had excellent gearing, which meant that he was always less out of breath than Helena by the time they got to the top of Hatterton Hill. He had the bad habit of using that opportunity to start arguments; he was a boy, and was to be a man, for the tactical moment.
(Boy, and man, and bicycle, are convenient, and accurate, terms of discourse, new and unknown as they may be to you. We had to be Instructed, and so will you.)
“Why do you say that?” said Helena, gulping from her water bottle and biding her time. She did not address the question of people laughing at her—it was of no interest to her.
She was an earnest child, who might have been unpopular with her peer group for her intelligence, were it not for a stubborn lower lip and the occasional flash of some blue metal in the depths behind her thick spectacles.
“My father says,” Philip continued. “My father says that if there were aliens, they would come calling.”
“Oh, nonsense,” Helena said. “I am sure aliens have better and more interesting places to go most of the time.”
It was a sunny day in the orbital year 1968 of their culture’s era, and she was really just trying to win the argument.
• • • •
There was—as you have been told—a people, once upon a time, who surfed seas of methane compounds on great ruby crystals and caught flying pink foam out of the air to feed their children; they were scholars and poets and warriors and engaged in other meritorious activities which I cannot conveniently put into your language.
I say they, because things were different then, but I might also have said we; but ah! we were less Instructed then.
The people were honourable according to their own codes, but suffered from certainty that the gods had made them in their own image. Certainty, you will note, and not merely belief. They had personal memories, of course, not being hive minds like you, but there were, and are, also memories, handed down as a sort of impersonal fact like the need to breathe, or, in their case, to catch flying foam.
One of these stated, with vividness like a first kiss or moment of ecstatic surfing, that creatures like themselves but larger had stood upon one of the few points of solidity on their world, an outcropping of crust towards its northern pole, and summoned the materials of life from the depths. The people remembered that precise moment of ceasing to be non-life and becoming not only life but sentience.
They were grateful to their gods, all but a few philosophers, whose lives proved fragile.
It was from the process of their extirpation that there arose leaders, who persuaded the masses that the favour, perhaps the return, of the gods, demanded this holocaust. Philosophy is less fragile than philosophers, and perpetual deferment of final extirpation gradually promoted those leaders and their scions to a caste of priest kings.
• • • •
At thirty-five, Dr. Helena Jones took wry pleasure in intimidating the men in her Department, none of whom had been even slightly charmed when she traded in her glasses for contact lenses.
Philip Masterton MP was undaunted by her gaze; he was at the Department to look for budget cuts and had a suspicion of where to find them.
“What proportion of your budget,” he said, with an almost convincing winner’s smirk, “is wasted on searches for imaginary alien intelligences?”
He searched the large folder of budget allocation slips he had on his side of the desk, but kept a wary eye on Helena, hoping for some crack in that impeccable certainty, as he had hoped for twenty-five years.
“None,” Helena said.
“I find that hard to believe,” Philip said, “given that you read a paper on your childhood obsession only three years ago in Reykjavik.”
“None,” Helena said, “as such. Obviously, the programmes we are working on examine all detected interstellar noise for organisation, but that is not specifically a matter of a search for intelligible organisation. The rhythms of the birth and death of galaxies are not run at speeds convenient to our perception. If listening for heartbeats means we pick up something else, it will merely be a bonus.”
Philip smiled graciously, acknowledging the defeat he had anticipated all along; since the COBE survey results, the kind of big cosmology Helena claimed to be working on was a popular shibboleth.
“Talking of a bonus,” he said, with his usual sense of timing, “is there any chance of my buying you dinner tonight?”
• • • •
The knowledge that there were gods and that they lived elsewhere than in the world skewed the people’s thought towards mysticism, but also gave rapid rise to knowledge of the outer universe. Their senses included fine appreciation of stellar radio sources, for one thing, which they used for accurate senses of time and direction; it is difficult to waste centuries turning an itchy but useful noise in your brain into a fallacious system of prediction. They had their superstitions, but not necessarily those of most other intelligences.
Rapidly, as these things go, the people worked their elegant minds around the existence of other worlds, the foundations of matter and the origins of the universe. As a corollary of this, of course, they intuited the existence of other living beings, beings not made in the image of gods; the first thinkers to produce this idea proved fragile in their turn, but after a while, cautionary pragmatism took over the thoughts of the priest kings.
If there were beings so blasphemous as to exist without divine sanction, they might come calling, polluting the surf and taking all savour from the foam. Further, the gods might well resent such pollution and never come again. Something would have to be done.
• • • •
Irritatingly, her ex-husband had been in Stockholm on business that week, and Helena could not think of any very good reason not to allow Philip to accompany her to the Prize ceremony and dinner. He was, after all, though an irritating philistine and ignoramus, her oldest friend.
There was also a certain pleasure in rubbing his nose so spectacularly in the fact that he was wrong and she was right.
“There was a message after all,” she smirked in the limousine back to the hotel.
He had not told the driver the address of his hotel, but, she realised, she was pleased at his presumption.
“That’s as may be,” he replied, after moments of thought, “but I do not see any obvious chance of our reading it in our lifetimes.”
“You have a point,” she said, “but lifetimes are going up all the time. This is the Twenty-First Century, after all.”
• • • •
The decision to devise a high technology was one which changed the people less than expected; after brief and violent contention over the issue, the first thing the priest kings had the new batch of philosophers work on was a way of entrenching their power in the genetic memory of their subjects.
After all, the gods, being all good, needed a ruling class prepared to ensure the virtue of lesser beings, by whatever means convenient; it was a meritorious act to make the people more like the gods, less prone to error or sedition—to make the priest kings more like the gods, in their power and their majesty, and the deference and worship owed them.
Details of such editorial adjustment of the genome were beneath the priest kings’ attention; they would surf majestically into congregations of philosophers, and catechise their servants without deigning to understand the responses.
The physical constraints of their world meant that metallurgy was a late and exotic invention; streaks of dancing plasma were, however, parent’s foam to them.
After a mere millennium of concentrated effort, a vast pulsating plasma was eating its way along the currents of dark dust that were its quickest way out towards the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, with, twinkling from its core, a lethal present for all beings blasphemous enough to presume to intelligence.
Deceit was not so much an immorality for the priest kings as something in which posterity would, with the mingling of bloodlines and the memories that went with them, eventually and inevitably catch one out. Alien beings, they reasoned, not having the perception of the gods to tie notions of truth to, would not be able to remember true things in the same way across the generations; to deceive them was thus not to pollute truth, was, indeed, epistemologically meritorious.
With a collective sigh of distaste for what had been a necessary episode, the priest kings had the philosophers revise the embedded memory of the people to remove the technological episode; they even removed the people’s genetic memory of the gods, allowing them the indulgence of an oral tradition.
Then they removed the philosophers, all save a few whom they hobbled to their will, by means cruder, but no less efficacious. Alien peoples like yourself, modified across aeons by mere random struggle, cannot know the intense compulsion of ancestral pain.
Contemplating their own glory, the priest kings felt entitled to have the last philosophers embellish it. The burdens of rank had to entail some privileges, particularly now that it meant becoming effectively a different species from the common people.
• • • •
On her deathbed, or rather floating two millimeters above it on relaxing constant jets of air, Helena kept herself alive with the momentary expectation of success; while she, or something closely resembling her, would survive actual shutdown, it would be a last indulgence to her glands to experience death from joy.
Philip, and people like him, had made the whole decoding process more difficult than eventually proved to be necessary. They had insisted that what had proved to be an elaborate and self-replicating programme for translating a simple message into any imaginable language had to be run on a virtual computer inside another virtual computer on a computer infested with a virus that would instantly shut down anything that looked suspicious inside a sealed environment on an island isolated from all power sources save the computer’s own batteries, and from the Net.
There was no point, she supposed, in not being careful.
Philip was dead, and waiting for her; this much she knew with a certainty that no earlier generation had had.
They brought the translation to her with a ceremonious hush.
She only managed to glance at it a second before expiring, not so much in joy as in giggles. Who would have expected, of all things, a treasure map?
• • • •
The people prospered, after their kind; the priest kings became ever more isolated from them. Amputation of technological interest made the people chary of those still in receipt of benefits the people were no longer able to understand; their sense of caste superiority made the priest kings ever more ingrown and, progressively, inbred.
Their undoing derived from the fact they had hobbled the last philosophers to obedience, and not to loyalty. The priest kings decided that they had not pushed far enough the attempt to become as gods. Specifically, they bred themselves for size and for intelligence; they failed, in their sense of mastery, to ask the philosophers compelled to execute this whether it was a good idea.
The philosophers’ delicate revenge was that the mutations for intelligence bred true sufficiently after the mutations for size that the priest kings were able to realise, too late to undo it, their own folly and sin. They had doomed their descendants to progressively earlier and more humiliating deaths by slow crumbling and sclerosis.
Most of the philosophers perished, as they had wished, in that moment of revelation and vengeance; some latter priest kings transcended their history in moments of grace—the last, the very last philosophers, plucked from their own temple—smash, scattered across the foam to dilute inherited agony with genes more common but more tranquil.
• • • •
A copy of Helena and a copy of Philip awakened in the memory banks of a small, toughened planetoid of metal headed towards the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. They were, an operating system brusquely told them, merely being woken for a test run, in case her intelligence, and his caution, were needed at their destination; this was, it conveyed, unlikely.
It was, thought Helena, whose last personal memory was of death, quite absurd that they should be here.
Philip agreed—this whole enterprise must have cost several decades worth of the entire global product and precipitated a massive recession on its completion.
Not at all, came the smug instruction of the operating system, how do you think humanity could have been so stupid? It took a mere year’s product of the whole solar system, Oort habitats and all; the recession would have been a mere blip of a decade or two, even had the spinoff technologies not created new industries and an ethic of hard work towards shared goals which has transformed consciousness.
How, thought Helena, are we going to get back afterwards?
You know, said the operating system, that the message promised a variety of space drives along with everything else; we can trust that our transport home will be provided. You led the translation team in the first place, Dr. Jones; you know this.
I fear the Greeks, thought Philip, and the gifts they offer.
We need not fear, the operating system responded, barbarian behaviour patterns from a race civilised enough to send us the message.
Such twenycen vulgarity as paranoid suspicion is something you might usefully keep under wraps when dealing with the human crew. Learn to suppress such instincts and you may not be useless baggage, after all, it continued, in the last instant of their awareness, before returning them to its memory.
• • • •
One of the very last of the giant priest kings staggered out of one of the very last of their refuges among the foam-dunes, giving birth as it went to a young and already moribund copy of itself. It scooped the dying child up and went its way, passing a young creature of the people who was musing, replete with foam, in what one might call the shade had it not been hotter than that which surrounded it, of what one might call a tree except that it moved slowly among the dunes.
When the youth, heir to generations of secret philosophies, saw the dying tyrant with its dying child, it contemplated the burdens of the flesh and the vanity of aspiration. It moved further into speculation on whether, just as the priest kings were eventually dying out, so too would the gods in their season. All was vanity save kindness, it thought, pulling itself across to the dying pair and trying to force foam into their orifices.
At the touch of its limbs, at the touch even of the foam, parts of parent and child sheared away in necrosis, so utter was their sickness. Soon they were nothing but flakes in the currents that bore the foam.
Even kindness, it thought, is perhaps an expenditure of effort, which, however well intentioned, merely defers the abandonment of self. Were these real creatures to begin with—it had supposed priest kings mythological—or some temptation of the soul? Pondering thus, ever more aware of the need to abandon all effort, all pretension, all consciousness of that self which could be tempted—thinking thus, it became Instructed. This was the first Instruction.
• • • •
There was something to be said, Helena thought to Philip, for old twenycen bloody-mindedness, and, she thought to the operating system, for saying I told you so.
Most of the crew of the Earth expedition had petulantly downloaded and archived themselves the moment they woke at their destination; their last instruction to the operating system had been to awaken the barbarians to cope.
Weak moral fibre, thought Philip.
Helena was impressed that he could still, even downloaded, manage the equivalent of that stupid insensitive officer class that she had always loved in him.
They found themselves near a pulsating chunk of plasma surrounded by a variety of what one did not have to be humanocentric to describe as ships, as vessels of passage, as religious offerings containing pilgrims themselves offered. Save for the operating system, and mental archives they felt disinclined to waste energy in decoding merely so that the crew could suicide all over again, their minds were alone in the ship.
The plasma beacon, needless to say, was entirely innocent of the promised treasures; it was possible some earlier visitor had collared the lot, but Helena could not see where they would have been.
If I may make so bold, sir and madam, said the operating system.
Philip had produced a bootleg servant attitude module from somewhere in his private files.
Helena thought askance at him.
I am merely ensuring that it does not put us back in its pocket, he thought.
Helena did what she was best at. She listened, and then she set up programmes to listen for her. They detailed the operating system to keep the hull swept clean of the scouring diamond dust of deep space and put themselves on hold.
Presumably, somewhere in this Sargasso, other people had had the same idea; they just had to get themselves in phase was all. One hoax does not, after all, invalidate the principle of listening, and they had nothing worth using at present except time.
• • • •
The habits of deference with which the priest kings had commissioned in the people and latterly in the last philosophers had little to do with the triumph of the Young Philosopher’s insights. It was, it often said, descended from both, and thus the servant of all servants.
How, one of the Young Philosopher’s paradoxes stated, can we be truly free to reject technology until we are free of the bonds technology has put on our minds to make itself alien to us?
Some of its disciples merely treated this as subject for meditation; others did not.
The genes of the last philosophers scattered throughout the people and incapacity for technology ceased to be a universal trait; in some of their descendants, even god-memory returned.
The inferiority of technology to true philosophy, the scripture went on, lies in the fact that technology can be reduced to formulae, and still work if applied by those who follow the formulae faithfully but without comprehension. Philosophy, on the other hand, can only be understood by a free being experiencing its truth for itself.
Some in subsequent generations argued that memories of the god-moment contradicted this insight, an experience not universally shared; nor comprehended, but merely apprehended.
Other schools argued that the fact that this memory could have been engineered into the priest kings by some putative earlier caste, rather than removed by them from the common people demonstrated the absolute unreliability of all knowledge save that derived from philosophy, which honestly taught its own uselessness.
Yet others argued that the existence of the gods was something which could, if necessary, be proved, whether by waiting or by going off to look for them. There was a difference, they argued, between the absolute knowledge of the god-moment and the knowledge of informed surmise, such as that knowledge which dealt with the existence of other worlds, yet both were susceptible of falsification.
Tension and harsh words resulted from all this.
One section of the ever growing body of disciples of the Young Philosopher remembered his dicta about the uselessness of kindness, and further exploration of the fragility of those with minority views might have ensued, but for the compromise instituted by the Young Philosopher’s third heir in succession.
Since all action is useless, the Third Successor opined, let us demonstrate our contempt for it by an action of exquisitely profound uselessness. Let these atavistic heretics be encouraged, nay, aided, in their search for the gods; what could be more useless than to journey into space, and what better demonstration of our contempt for all worlds save this than to commit the supremely useless act of going there?
Those heretics not actually persuaded by the actual argument could see the case for surfing in its wake. Indeed, they suggested further, to guarantee the lives of themselves and their descendants, that the supremely useless and exotic science of metallurgy, of which only rumours remained, be explored and recreated, so as to make the useless task particularly onerous, and lengthy.
• • • •
It was, by any reckoning, several thousand years before the process of lining up in simultaneous awareness various groups of aliens, present in their ships as downloaded consciousnesses on hold or in suspended animation or other technologies broadly analogous but related to entirely alien ways of living and thinking.
For Helena and Philip, it was the blinking of an eye; Helena had done a competent job, as had at least three of her alien equivalents—a cloud of purple gas from the rings of a giant planet of Tau Ceti, a hive mind of giant otters obsessed with their race’s cognate of chess, and something which, in its natural state, resembled a continuously rebounding streak of lightning.
Once firm contact had been made, and translation protocols established, using the Hoaxer’s memory as omnilingual, and principles of fair exchange of information set up, the operating system threw off Philip’s module and awoke, then re-uploaded, the archived sleepers.
One of these, a tall blonde who had paid vulgarly too much attention to body-sculptors in her youth, came to turn Helena and Philip off.
Plugging herself in, she explained that, of course, they had relied on Helena to do an adequate job; listening and translation was, after all, what she was famous, or rather, notorious, for. You got us into this, she thought, so you may as well do some of the boring bits.
This came as no particular surprise, since one of the first subjects on which the duty watches of the fifteen hundred space ships from as many civilisations had been able to hold an extended communication had been the intolerable snobbery of later generations towards the pre-message, pre-spaceflight generation that in each and every case seemed to end up doing the dirty work for them.
Rather than let herself be brushed off into inaction, Helena suggested that the Duty Watch be generally deputed, while the grownups swapped high-tech notes and generally made the best of their already radically improved situation, to consider an interesting side light on it, the question of the identity of the Hoaxers.
This they were allowed to do, on condition that they operated at a level slower than real-time. Children get so under foot otherwise, the more sophisticated generations moaned to each other.
• • • •
The memories of the Young Philosopher were, by systematic outbreeding, spread throughout the whole of the people in a few generations. Perforce, this spreading of the memory of his Instruction mated with it the hereditary convictions of the various schools, producing, by the time of his seventeenth successor in direct line, an altogether wanton eclecticism.
That wily, pragmatic, and spontaneously benevolent being, the Third Successor, had privately reasoned, keeping his bloodline separate for as long as possible to keep the reasoning secret, that a people bred to believe all possible things at once was likely to avoid destructive intolerance. Kindness, his legacy stated, was as useless as everything else; it was, however, generally convenient. This was the Second Instruction, the Consensus.
In the process of all of this process of dialectical synthesis through eugenics, probably without the direct connivance of the Third Successor, odd bits of racial memory already knocked thoroughly loose by previous tinkering degenerated into mere junk genetic information. Principal among these were the last memories of the beacon project.
The urge to persuade or bludgeon others into agreement survived, perhaps in the genotype, perhaps in the culture merely, any possible further argument. The decision to go to the stars, itself now a universal characteristic, found itself reinforced by this imperative; other beings must be brought into the consensus.
• • • •
Helena thought to Philip, and to the otters, who were culturally capable of having the reference translated to them, please don’t throw me in the briar bush.
The advantage of slow-time was that you could keep some sort of track of what was going on and not have to wait to be woken up; you could, for example, watch the awakened hightechs get thoroughly and effetely bored with the hard job of creating a multi-species civilisation in almost entirely empty intergalactic space and decide, after a bit, to go back to sleep until something interesting came along. An ethic of collective effort towards a shared goal has little place for obstinate persistence in make-work.
When the last hightechs turned back in, the blonde with the cheekbones, already suicided and downloaded, speeded Helena back up to real-time.
You won’t remember me, she thought.
On the contrary, Helena thought, I know myself well enough after several thousand years to know that I am part of the template from which you or your cognate built your mind.
You were fashionable, that year, the semi-Helena thought, and I never got round to trading in that module.
And now, Helena thought, you want us poor twenycen trash to take over while you lot doze off.
We want, thought the semi-Helena, to give you a chance to do the sort of useless tinkering you seem to find reassuring as a way of whistling in the dark; it seemed a kindness.
It’s a million-to-one chance, thought Helena, but it might just work.
Sarcasm ill becomes you, thought the semi-Helena, archiving herself.
I am never sarcastic, thought Helena.
Philip had constructed a sub-routine for ironic laughter, and used it; while Helena went about her business, he set himself to the construction and decanting of improved young copies of their original bodies.
Let’s slip into something a little more comfortable, he thought, lewdly.
• • • •
The people eventually built their ships and wandered out into the galaxy; we endured the fearful privation of artificial foam and cramped crystals in ships built of a rickety mixture of metal and plasma and sloughed off body parts of the large beings that had lived harmless beneath the foam.
We learned, over the centuries, the places where life might be found and usually was—third planets from yellow suns, the moons of gas giants on the brink of ignition, cometary clouds torn and reformed by distant, dark companions.
We had great difficulty, at times, in preserving quite the impassivity and equanimity that doctrine taught us in the face of epic and exhilarating privations, but the Young Philosopher’s Instruction and the Third Successor’s Consensus drove us on and kept us from excitement or unbecoming self-importance.
The various hyper-civilised races we encountered, each of them inhabiting their original system to the full, but little besides, were entirely charmed by our message. All of them had come to the same conclusion many centuries before; all of them had sent out an expedition in search of vast promise, never fulfilled or even disappointed; all of them had gone through a cargo-cult period, a period of high-spending predicated on the postal-order that was, that must be, in the intergalactic post; all had learned world-weary cynicism from the experience.
Uselessness, why not, they said, variously; how true, how profound, how charming, they yawned, genteelly.
At each place we visited, we were well received and made much of, and made to feel entirely provincial. All the species we met were too civilised to disagree with a position obviously deeply felt; most were sophisticated enough in bioengineering to find at once impressive and slightly distasteful a creed that permeated genetic code.
Our references to the priest kings struck, surprisingly, a chord in all the species we met; caught up with their memories of traumatic expenditure of energy on their expeditions, each species had unpleasant memories of a period of rule by conspiratorial authority, who had, in time, proved fragile.
All of them found our missionary efforts convenient; since we were sending ships around the galaxy anyway, we might as well carry with us this few bars of music, this theorem or sonnet, this cosmological insight, just in case anyone found their contemplation of the uselessness even of the beautiful and valid enhanced by a free offering. They also, as a free offering, improved our ships—really, they thought as they patched and remodelled, some people just aren’t safe being let out among the stars.
No single race ever thought of this as denigrating our epic journey; no race, valetudinarian as they all were after the disappointment of the message, was above making mild use of a visitor who was going to call on the neighbours anyway.
We were descendants of the Young Philosopher and the Third Successor, after all, and, like them, the servants of all servants.
• • • •
When Helena woke the semi-Helena, the latter looked askance at the body into which Helena had re-uploaded herself.
“The whole point,” the semi-Helena said, “of millennia of experience is to lose the hunger for the flesh.”
Helena remembered her daughter’s disapproval of Helena’s continuing to wear jeans and forebore comment.
“What have you woken me for?” said the semi-Helena.
Helena’s expansive gesture turned on a variety of screens she had brought into the resurrection room. They all showed a vast realm of girders and modules and miniature worldlets, a web in which the original Sargasso of ships was not so much embedded as lost. They also showed the vast edifice moving, infinitesimally slowly, away from the beacon, tugged by myriad tiny points of light.
“And here’s one I made earlier,” Helena said.
The semi-Helena paused to check the chronometer subroutine in her brain.
“I must say,” she said, “that you and the other children seem to have built this awfully quickly.”
“Oh,” Helena said, “I really do mean we started to make it earlier—I don’t make jokes for their own sake. We sent out little von Neumann bugs to get the material for it before we allowed you to wake up the first time. We suspected you might engage in some sort of high-minded double-cross, and we just thought we would go ahead and do what was necessary.”
“It seemed likely” said Philip, “that it would take a long time to get the first few to anywhere where there might be material from which they could start building more and larger; less time to accumulate vast numbers of the things; quite a long time again to bring them back. We thought we ought to get started—it was the first thing we did when you left us in charge first time.”
“Well,” said the semi-Helena, “of course we meant you children to do that all the time.”
“We don’t believe you,” Helena said.
“Speaking as fairly accomplished liars ourselves,” said Philip.
“Because,” Helena said, “having committed yourselves to a religiose stupidity like sending a physical expedition rather than a horde of von Neumann probes in the first place, to use that technology to make your marooning tolerable would involve a colossal loss of face.”
“Let’s face it,” Philip said, “you were probably hand-picked for, or brain-washed into, certain intellectual incapacities in the first place. Obviously I was wrong about economic depression, but perhaps someone wanted to create a cultural depression that would enable them to rule for generations.”
“You can never be sure,” said Helena, “that you are not being used, but you can do the best work you can.”
She looked at the screens and the city of worldlets she had helped build, and was not even slightly abashed by the knowledge that a purple cloud, a streak of lightning, and a family of otters had all just played the same scene.
“You have to put up with being a fool in this world,” she said, taking Philip’s hand, “but you can choose whom you allow to manipulate you.”
• • • •
They left the beacon in place, not knowing how to turn it off, and planning effusive apologies to any new suckers they met on their way back to the home galaxy.
The first race to turn up were the missionaries; having come all this way, we were put out to find our message of perfect uselessness less welcome here. The odds and ends we had accumulated in our travels were more welcome—packages from home and the latest journals in the field in one.
Philip persuaded us to make the endless trip time and time again.
“It is perfectly useless to attempt conversion of those disinclined to believe,” he said, “and thus entirely meritorious.”
He also spent a lot of time listening to everything that we had to say, particularly about the mythic background to the Young Philosopher’s Instruction.
• • • •
The second race who turned up did so from an unexpected direction, and for a moment Helena and the Otters, who were on greeting roster that decade, thought they were the missionaries back again—but they were far too large.
“We thought we would look by your galaxy again,” they boomed on channels of thought that ached like teeth on metal foil. “This seemed to be where things were happening.”
“I think we recently said goodbye to some of your relatives,” Philip said. “Just like you, only a lot smaller.”
“Oh,” thought the giants embarrassedly, as if they had been caught littering or masturbating. “Suppose we had better go and say hallo.”
They started to trudge back along the bridge their vessel had thrown against the port module, then turned.
“We couldn’t help listening to your beacon,” they thought, sceptically. “Have you really got an instantaneous mass transmitter, a hyperspace tube, the alkahest, and a universal cure for minor ailments?”
“It’s not our beacon,” Helena said, and explained.
“Only,” they thought, “if you’d like a good strong intergalactic drive, nothing terribly fancy, we could probably help you move all this back to your home galaxy a bit faster . . .”
There were nice people out in the galaxy, Helena reflected with a flash of her twelve-year-old optimism. Even the Hoaxers had created a context in which the peoples of the galaxy met in mutual need and harmony, and everyone would live happily ever after. Just like a fairy tale, in the end.
Of course, eventually Philip told her his theories about everything that had happened.
“Ought we to tell people?” she said. “Build a library and call them together in it?”
“There is no point,” he said, “in our trying to play Nick and Nora Charles with the fate of the Galaxy. For once, Helena, we should leave well enough alone.”
“I have,” she said, “been called a child too many times in the last few millennia to want it ever to happen again. The adults of the galaxy seem content with things as they are, and who are we to meddle? Merely the fools of cosmic jokes . . .”
“Yes,” he said, kissing her on the cheek, “but not the only ones, and, nonetheless, my love, we can still have fun . . .”
This realisation, unassisted by Instruction or Consensus and digitalised for easier transmission, is generally referred to as the Third Instruction.
• • • •
Bicycle gears, pink foam, budget sheets, and the itch of stars. Kindness and reticence are meritorious, but useless because impermanent; what was once a secret pleasure becomes revelation, a Mystery to be told on beads.
• • • •
If you have not understood this time, I will instruct you again.