Thursday, 26 December 2013

Chapter 15. Of Harv’I of the Elo’I

Michael and I continued around the edge of the crater. As we walked, Michael briefed me about my next interview.

“The Elo’I,” he said, “are an interesting species. They come from a very hot planet, several hundred of your degrees Celsius. But they can survive, with some difficulty, on cooler planets like Perinent or Earth.

“The Elo’I are spacefarers on their own account. Unlike most Galactics, they do not use Naudar’I ships except in extreme need. They love to explore and to joy-ride, and in the past, they have caused through their exuberance problems on many planets, including Earth.

“Recently, the Elo’I, seeing that they are poorly regarded in the Galactic Association, have turned over a new leaf. Harv’I volunteered to be project manager here, in order to help repair the damage caused to you humans by his father, Jahw’I. All of us on the project believe that Harv’I is sincere. He is an exceptional individual.”

A pause, then, “What do you think of the Judaeo-Christian religion, Neil?” asked Michael, looking at me and chuckling.

“I lost it at age sixteen,” I replied.

“And yet, Neil,” said Michael quietly, “you are about to exchange pleasantries with the son of God.”

It was my turn to chuckle.

* * *

As we got towards Harv’I’s house, it became very hot. “Do not worry,” said Michael. “In the place where we will sit to meet Harv’I, the air-conditioning is good.”

We reached the small pavilion opposite Harv’I’s house, and sat on something like a swinging sofa. From the house, perhaps twenty metres away, a being came slowly out.

He looked as much like a penguin as anything else. He was about a metre tall. His head was roughly the same size and shape as a human’s, with eyes and mouth resembling saucers, like a Max Ernst god. His body was ovoid, his arms tapered to hands much like human ones, and his legs were remarkably short compared to the rest of him. His colour was black, though, all the time, flecks of fire flicked through his frock. A wave of heat wafted towards us, but was visibly deflected above our pavilion.

“Greetings,” the being said, in perfect English. “I am Harv’I of the Elo’I. You know my role.”

“I greet you, Harv’I,” I said. “I am Neil, and you know my role too. But it is for you, first, to tell us the story of your father’s visit to Earth.”

“Well done,” murmured Michael. “Putting the onus on to him, without being offensive.”

“I accept,” said Harv’I. “But it will take time. So” – and, at this point, he sent a telepathic picture of me as a child – “I ask, are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.”

Remembering early 1960s children’s TV, I guffawed.

Now Harv’I had learned English, in order to talk easily with us. But he was also a telepath. As he told his story, as well as the words he spoke I received flashes of his thought. Many of these I saw as pictures, others I felt as thoughts or emotions in my mind. Harv’I’s communication was very rich; and my telepathic receiving abilities were improving. That was a good combination.

“Once upon a time,” said Harv’I, “the Elo’I – my race – established a colony on the planet Sol-2, which you call Venus.

“My ancestors found the planet uninhabited, so they took possession, and built a colony. The colony flourished for a while, but then, suddenly, contact was lost. All this happened more than a hundred of our generations ago.

“We sent missions, but they found nothing. Venus is a perfect planet for us – we breathe in carbon dioxide, like the plants on your Earth, and we enjoy hot temperatures and high pressures. Yet there was no colony, and there were no identifiable relics.

“Many generations passed. Our understanding improved. We became full Galactics. Then my father Jahw’I, an archaeologist, determined to visit Sol-2 to try to find out what had gone wrong.

“But his ship suffered a mechanical failure, and instead of landing on Sol-2, he crashed on Sol-3, your planet Earth. He landed in what you call the Sinai desert. He was hurt.

“Now, the Galactic Association maintains beacons on all habitable planets in the Galaxy. Someone who crashes on a habitable planet, if they can find the beacon, can summon help. There were – still are – four such beacons on your planet Earth. At that time, the nearest beacon was in a place you now call Jericho. My father knew where it was.

“But the beacons cannot be activated by anyone who is not physically near. So he had to journey to Jericho. Now, we Elo’I have many strong powers, but moving our own bodies from one place to another, without assistance, is difficult for us. My father was injured, too, and your planet is very cold for us and has little carbon dioxide.

“My father still had a limited ability to move around; he had a personal mover, which had not been destroyed in the crash. But it could not take him to Jericho. For that was about 700 of your kilometres, far beyond the mover’s range.

“So he sought help from the natives. But he had only one means of communication, telepathy. He had to find a human telepath; but they were few. The one he found was Moses. And Moses was a full telepath, both transmitter and receiver.

“My father saw that he could use Moses’ tribe to take him to Jericho and the beacon. So he impressed Moses with a display of some of his powers. And he sent him to Egypt, to find his tribe.

“Then my father maintained telepathic contact with Moses, even when he was many kilometres away. That, of course, is against Galactic law – an invasion of privacy. But my father reckoned that you humans, at the time, were hardly more than a Level Zero civilization – so he could get away with it.

“Then he used his powers to help Moses and his tribe escape from Egypt. They reached my father in Sinai. To make himself impressive to them, he clothed himself with emissions of smoke and fiery heat. I can show you myself how we Elo’I can raise a pillar of cloud and fire, but not right now – I am not prepared.”

“I look forward to that,” I said.

“Then,” continued Harv’I, “there were the burnt offerings. The main purpose of these was not food – though we Elo’I can take food on cold planets in many ways, including roast sheep and goats. My father’s real purpose in ordering burnt offerings was to ease the cold. And the carbon dioxide from the fires – along with that breathed out by so many people around him – made him more comfortable.

“My father tried to teach your ancestors a little of the Galactic way, but he mis-estimated. Of the ten commandments he taught you, the first four were to establish his own rule over you. The last six were aimed at individuals of Level One civilization, going towards Level Two. But, your ancestors, having not yet quite reached even Level One, could not easily be induced to obey them.

“My father ordered Moses to build an ark, in which the tribe could carry him to Jericho. He ordered it just large enough to hold him and his mover. And he had it lined with gold – a comfortable bed for an Elo’I. His heat was much diminished, so the porters could carry the ark without being stewed. But he could still create the pillar of fire when he wanted to – either above the lid of the ark, or, at need, a few metres away.

“He led Moses and his tribe north-east. When they were hungry, he used his powers to provide them with food. But he was very strict with them. His survival depended on their being obedient, all the way to Jericho. So, he killed those that disobeyed him.”

“He gave them quails and manna, but his manner made them quail,” I opined. Michael smiled. But Harv’I seemed too intent on his story to notice the pun.

“When they came east of the Jordan, opposite Jericho,” continued Harv’I, “my father realized they could not take possession of any part of the land you call Israel, without great force. So, he held them in the same place for many of your years. In this time, he made the tribe into a ruthless military force.

“Eventually, they crossed the Jordan – in this crossing, again, my father used his powers – and they reached Jericho. He made them march seven times round the city, on that fateful day, for a very good reason. They would be so tired that evening, that my father could leave the ark undetected, use his mover to take him into the ruins of Jericho, and find and activate the beacon.

“He did all this. Until his rescue, he remained hidden in what had been Jericho, but kept in constant telepathic contact with Joshua, the new leader. So the tribe continued successful in their military exploits. They conquered and exterminated virtually all those they attacked, taking their cattle and their other possessions. Once the rescue party arrived, though – led by my uncle Danl’I, for we Elo’I always rescue our own – the tribe were left to their own resources. That is why their military might gradually became less and less.

“A postscript. My father worried that what he had done to you humans could be criminal under Galactic law. Militarizing you and making you collectivist would be very serious charges. You are, even now, far less peaceful and individual than is usual for a species approaching Junior Galactic status.

“So, a while later, my father, with a family of friendly Cherubim, returned secretly to your Earth. They found and destroyed the remains of the crashed ship. And they replaced the beacon, whose records could have been used as evidence against my father, by a new one. It was this visit that your Ezekiel saw.

“There was suspicion of us Elo’I within the Galactic Association, over what had happened on your Earth. But my father could not be positively identified as the guilty one. And so, no charges were ever brought against him.”

I was amazed. So – as some suspected – God really had been one of the bad guys, after all?

There is a huge difference, I thought, between, on the one hand, “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal,” and on the other hand, what Jahw’I then caused the tribe to do. In response to this thought, I received a telepathic grimace, with an apologetic tone to it.

But I had some more specific questions too. “Harv’I,” I asked, “how did your father do the things which are recorded in our books, to bring Moses and his tribe out of Egypt to Israel? Water turning to blood? Plagues of frogs, gnats, flies and locusts – not to mention swarms of dying quail? Boils? Selective deaths of cattle and of Egyptians? Thunder, hail and darkness? Parting the Red Sea and the Jordan? The sun stopping?”

“We Elo’I can do much,” replied Harv’I. “We can change the local weather easily enough. That accounts for thunder and hail, locusts and quail. We can exploit any large enough fault under the ground to make an earthquake, so causing seas or rivers to ebb for a time, or destroying a city. But some of the things in your bible must have been misrepresentations by your recorders. Unless my father had, as a few Elo’I do, unusual powers he did not tell me of?”

“And what of later events?” I asked, turning to Michael. “Were you Seraphim also involved in stories related in the bible? Did Gabriel, for example, really visit Earth to announce the forthcoming birth of Jesus?”

“No,” said Michael. “I myself never visited Earth, until I went there to pick up you and the Team. And, if Gabriel had been there before, I am sure he would have told me. Furthermore, about three thousand of your years ago, the Galactic Association declared Earth to be off limits to visitors, to avoid a repeat of what Jahw’I had done there.

“It is actually quite normal for species not yet Galactic to experience dreams or visions of Galactic species, especially of those who will later become their Helpers. I think this must have been the origin of your tales.”

Our conversation continued, but eventually I decided it was time to impose some structure. “To practical matters,” I said. “We all of us have responsibilities to drive our project forward. Let me summarize where I think we are.

“In about twenty or twenty-five days, Bart Vorsprong, the project consultant, will arrive here to help us plan in detail what we will do. Until then, we have two main responsibilities. One, we must establish a routine for the camp, which will work not only for those here now, but also later, when we have Pulled many people here for training. And two, as many of us as can must learn to Pull and to Push.

“As part of the routine, Harv’I, you and I must establish communications with each other. We should meet face-to-face regularly. I suggest that I come here to talk with you once a week – that is, about every seven days.” Harv’I signalled assent.

“On top of that,” I continued, “is there a way in which we can exchange messages without meeting? Do you have Pedia access here, Harv’I?” “Yes,” he sent.

To Michael, “The Pedia database we have is a local copy, yes?” A nod. “So we can add to it, without anyone trying to change or delete what we put in?” Another nod. “Then I suggest we establish an article in the Pedia for the exchange of messages between Harv’I and me.”

“Done,” signalled Harv’I. “Look up my name in your Pedia, and you will find it.”

“That was quick,” I said. Harv’I transmitted a sweeping bow.

Soon, it was time to part. “May you have much warmth and happiness, until we meet again,” I said.

“May your god go with you,” replied Harv’I, with a telepathic smirk.

Good, I thought. Harv’I did have a sense of humour after all.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Chapter 14. Of the Cherubim, and the Punishment Pit

I went to the robe room, and tried on various robes of near my size. “Pick six white robes, three white hoods to wear in the sun, and a special robe and hood of your favourite colour,’ said Shami. I did so, and my special robe was a light purple. I noticed there were no red robes. No communists here, I thought.

“Why are there no red robes?” I asked Shami. “Because red is the special-robe colour of the Seraphim,” she replied.

I met Michael outside. “Our visit will take most of the day,” he said. “It will be hot, so you will need water. And if you want lunch, you must take it with you.

“I recommend walking boots. And you will not need your translator. The Cherubim are telepaths, and Harv’I is not only telepathic, but he will have learned English too.”

I went to see Ben – who, as part of his role of barman, was also king of our bottled water supplies. Then back to the room, to change and pick up rucksack and boots. I didn’t bother with lunch, being a twice-a-day eater. And I made sure to take off my watch – being metal, it would have given me discomfort in the fields outside.

Michael and I set off from the west door. It was past midday, 11 of the 22, already. Gabriel was still helping Ray, Jenna and Marie to find, via the Pedia, the instruction manuals for their kitchen tools. Lunch was going to be late. The Tuglay were up and about, ready to start teaching. I noticed Cees talking intently with Tuglaydum. The rest of the Team were not in sight.

It was hot outside, but not uncomfortably so – around 30 Celsius, I reckoned. As we walked, Michael told me about the Cherubim. “They are very different from most Galactics,” he said. “They take their energy from the magnetic and other force fields around them. They need little else except a bit of sunlight.

“Among those few Galactic species who still have police and prisons, the Cherubim are much in demand as policemen and warders. That is why we use them to guard the Punishment Pit.

“There are three main reasons why Cherubim are good at these jobs. One, they can move faster over the ground without mechanical assistance than any other Galactics. They can go with little effort at sixty metres per second, in your measure. Two, with a touch, they can deliver an electric shock that can stun or even kill. And three, they are very strongly telepathic, and at need can read minds.

“They each have four legs, and they live in families of four,” said Michael. “You will often hear them say their credo, ‘Four in one, and one in four.’”

* * *

We came to the mechanism on the south side of the crater, which Dede had told us about. Michael punched a button. Up came, after a while, a lift. One side of the lift, the one on the same side as the crater wall, was coloured blue. The other three sides were transparent, looking like glass. “Stand with your back to the blue wall,” said Michael.

The door closed, and the lift went down – fast. It was a bit alarming to be suddenly almost weightless. Soon, though, I began to feel pressed back against the wall. It felt as if, as we rushed down the side of the crater, it was becoming gradually less and less steep. Then acceleration kicked in the other way, and I felt almost double my normal weight. The lift slowed, stopped and rotated into the upright position. The door opened. The journey had taken no more than twenty seconds.

A Cherub met us at the exit. He was about a metre and a quarter tall, and his body consisted of four blue-grey, mottled, blocky, strong-looking legs, arranged in a circle with the feet facing outwards, and connected by a solid, thick, darker blue membrane at the top.

“Greetings, Michael,” sent the Cherub. Then, to me, “Greetings, respectable Sir. We Cherubs. We four in one, and one in four. We guard Pit.” His telepathic accent was thick, but his signal was very loud. I had no difficulty at all understanding. Michael, too, clearly understood the Cherub, even though he was not normally a telepath.

Michael gave me a look, and I said, in speech and in thought at the same time, “I greet you, Cherubs. I am Neil, leader of the human Team in this camp.”

“Well met, Neil,” sent the Cherub. “You good humans in Team. You bring bad humans to Pit?”

“Yes,” I smiled, thinking of a few politicians and others that deserved some justice.

“We good guards are,” sent the Cherub. “See my brother run?” – pointing, with one leg, towards another Cherub, who was doing something astonishing. He put two of his four legs up into the air, then rotated – fast. He went across a hundred metres or so of ground in about two seconds, far faster than any cheetah. And then he stopped almost instantaneously.

I was reminded of the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel. I could well believe that the author had seen Cherubim, even if his story was embroidered. I could also see that some hacker had managed to insert, into his description, the word “not,” many times over. “They turned not when they went,” I thought, should really be “They turned when they went.” And the stuff about “going straight forward” was wrong too.

The Cherub pirouetted. “You us understand! You truth see!” In the heat of the moment, I had forgotten that the Cherub would have picked up everything I consciously thought.

“Please show us where those we Pull for punishment will be dealt with,” I said. The Cherub – rotating very slowly! – led Michael and me towards a building near the centre of the crater. I noticed, as soon as I started walking, that it was several degrees hotter down here than at the surface.

We came to the building, and it was empty. “We wait right size pallets,” the Cherub sent. “They should arrive in about thirty days,” said Michael.

“How many can you punish here at one time?” I asked. I got back from the Cherub an extraordinary image, of dozens of Skobar in a small space. Each was on a pallet, and they were stacked up as if on bunk beds. The scene looked like a cross between a world war two prison camp and a battery egg farm.

I looked at the building, and did a rapid mental calculation. “Humans are nearly twice the length of Skobar on average,” I said. “And broader and fatter, too. It looks to me as if we have space here to punish several hundred, but not thousands. Am I right?”

“You correct are,” sent the Cherub. And “About four hundred, or a little less, is the estimate,” said Michael.

“And what – beyond imprisoning them in insanitary conditions – can you do to add to their punishment?” I asked the Cherub.

“Mostly, need not,” he sent. “All together in small space is bad. They fight each other. We add bad thoughts if need. Or shock them with touch.”

Soon, it was time to part with the Cherub. “I wish you all that is good to you, until we meet next time,” I sent.

“Perinent good place is,” replied the Cherub. “Good fields, sunny. Much making justice. We four in one, one in four, happy here. We wish you and Team also happy.”

The Cherub pirouetted again. Michael and I both bowed to him, and we made our way back to the crater lift. Going up was fully as fast as going down had been.

As we exited the lift, I said to Michael with a grin, “Those are the nicest prison warders I’ve ever met.”

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Chapter 13. Of Camp Two, and the Tuglay

“We are,” said Dede, “near the east side of a giant crater in the ground. It is roughly circular, and about two kilometres across. It is hundreds of metres to the bottom. I couldn’t see anything down there.

“To the south side, there is a mechanism, which looks like an elevator down into the crater. To the west, there is a house, looking a little like ours, but much smaller. And beside it, a small pavilion. It is very hot there. And I saw a sleek, black ’mobile parked next to the house.

“To the north,” Dede continued, “I found nothing but rocks and sand.

“I come out of Indonesia,” said Dede finally, “and I find hot weather comfortable. But here on Perinent, it is hotter – and drier – than I am used to. I like it already.”

“Good work, Dede,” I said. Then, “Gabriel, what can you tell us about Perinent and about our camp?”

“It is now early summer in this latitude,” said Gabriel. “This is dry season here. It will get hotter. Some days it will reach up to forty or even forty-five of your Celsius degrees. But then, there will be the Time of Storms, and afterwards it will be cooler. The Perinent year is about three-quarters the length of the year on Earth.

“As to Dede’s report, the crater he describes is the Punishment Pit. There we will place all those you Pull here for retributive justice. There are four beings called Cherubim, who rule the Pit. They have four legs. And they are blue. Do not touch them! – you will get a bad electric shock.

“And the house on the west side is Harv’I’s. He is the local project manager. Neil, you will need to spend much time with him.”

It was my turn to lead. “I asked some of you,” I said, “to report on the facilities you have for doing the jobs you volunteered for. Ray, Jenna and Marie, this dinner proves that both your cooking skills, and the kitchen facilities the Seraphim have provided us, are excellent. But is there anything more you would like, to make your job easier?”

Jenna said, “Every implement we managed to use in the kitchen worked well. The Aga Khan is superb. But some of the machines, we can’t work out how to use them. And others, we can’t even work out what they are for. We presume they are made by the Seraphim, like the Aga. Gabriel, can you explain these machines to us?”

“I, no,” said Gabriel. “Michael is better than I am at cooking. But the answers you seek can be found in the Pedia. I will help you find them tomorrow.”

“Ben?” I asked.

“I transferred a good stock of wine to the bar in this room,” said Ben. “I found the cool-room underneath, but I couldn’t work out how to turn the cooling on. That is why all the wine we have tonight” – looking around at the bottles on the table, some fuller, some emptier – “is red.”

“Another for the Pedia?” I asked Gabriel. “No, I know how to turn the cooler on,” he said. “I will show Ben right after dinner.”

Shami reported that she had found a good stock of robes in various sizes, as well as plenty of bed-linen and underwear, and a good variety of socks and shoes. Most of the robes were white, but about one in seven were of different colours. “Sunday best?” asked Ben, and everyone laughed, except Gabriel, who said, “Yes, we Seraphim wear different robes on special days. We thought it good to try to replicate this custom here.”

Shami reported that she had started a catalogue of what she had. “I think I am about half way through,” she said. “And I haven’t tried the laundry machine – because there are no dirties yet!”

“I think Shami is giving us a hint,” I said. “Tomorrow morning, let each of us visit the robe room and pick a week’s worth of wear. Then let’s leave our dirties with Shami, so she can try out George Washing-tun.”

* * *

Next morning, Michael returned with the Seraphimobile. And in it, the two Tuglay teachers.

Now the Tuglay looked like nothing so much as a pair of small, brown Christmas trees. Each was, more or less securely, attached to a moving platform, a bit like a silver skateboard. And the platforms moved fast.

The Tuglay had translators more sophisticated than ours. Not only did they convert our English into the Tuglay language, which they spoke very fast, and which sounded like a mixture of soft susurrations and clicks. But they also translated the Tuglay language into English, meaning that we could talk with them without needing our own translators.

The Tuglay introduced themselves, mellifluously and limerixiously.

“For we are the teaching Tuglay,
We never accept any lie,
And we’ll push you to reach
The potential of each,
And then, you’ll be ready to fly.”

We very soon noticed that one of the Tuglay preferred to sit slightly on the left side of the platform, and the other slightly on the right. We named them Tuglaydum and Tuglaydee respectively; I think it was Marie who created this appellation.

* * *

While we ate breakfast, the Tuglay went to their room to rest. After breakfast, I called a meeting, at which Michael said, “Today, if you will Neil, we will begin the Team’s education in Pulling and Pushing. The Tuglay are teachers; but they do not themselves have these particular skills. It is Gabriel who has them already. So Gabriel will show you how, then the Tuglay will help you acquire the skills.”

“That’s fine,” I said, “but what of me? Don’t I need to meet Harv’I, and the Cherubim, as soon as possible?”

“Yes,” said Michael. “You will have to start learning Pulling and Pushing a day behind everyone else. I will take you today to visit the Cherubim, and for your first talk with Harv’I.”

“And what of the promises which Gabriel has made to help Ray, and Jenna, and Marie, and Ben, understand their equipment? I judge that this is more important than beginning with the Pulling and Pushing. First build the foundation, then add the new skills,” I said.

It was my first serious decision as Team Leader, and Michael respected it. “OK, Gabriel will spend the morning helping the Team, then we will begin the tuition in the afternoon. I see now that it is better so, for the Tuglay will have more time to recover from their journey.”

“Good,” I said.

“Another thing,” said Gabriel. “Now that there are no other claims on the ’mobile, we would like to institute a daily ride for those who want it. Michael and I will share the piloting. We will do our best to make it fun for the passengers. I suggest that we fix 17 hours of the 22 as the time. If not all of you who want to can go at that exact time, we will offer a second opportunity a little later.”

Two hours before dinner sounded like a good time to finish work for the day. “Done,” I said.

“To today,” I said. “All of us need, first, to go to Shami to get robes for the next week or so. Then, to deliver to her the ones we are wearing now. Then, Michael and I will visit the Cherubim and Harv’I of the Elo’I. Gabriel will help the food and drink team with their questions in the morning. After lunch, the Pulling and Pushing tuition will begin. Ray, Jenna, Marie, Ben, Shami, you must each make your own decision as to whether you attend, or continue with your other duties. Any questions?”

Everyone was so astonished by my forcefulness, that there were no questions.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Chapter 12. Of Our First Day on Perinent

Having arrived in the early Perinent morning, we soon got used to our new accommodation. The rooms were as large as those on the ship, but the furniture was more human in scale. The beds were also more comfortable, even luxurious. And the air-conditioning was perfect. We’re going to be here a while, I thought. Two Earth years, Michael had said when he picked me up.

The geography of the hotel was thus. There was a long north-south corridor, with rooms on either side. Lily and I chose the northernmost room on the west side – it was number 1. There were 64 human rooms in all. To the south of these, there were rooms for the Seraphim and for the Tuglay. (The Tuglay were the teacher species, who were going to help us learn Pulling and Pushing, and to teach those we Pulled here for leadership training.)

On the west side, the right as you went towards the dining- and meeting-room at the south end, there were a Pedia access room and a large, plushly furnished common room. On the other side, there were cloakrooms, a laundry room and a large kitchen. There were store-rooms below ground too. The main doors were half way along, on both sides. The Seraphimobile was parked twenty metres or so outside the east door.

* * *

We were no longer in a full service hotel, so basic tasks – like cooking and laundry – were now for us to organize ourselves. So, as team leader, I called a meeting after we had enjoyed a “Fortnum and Mason” picnic breakfast.

“First,” I said “to food. What supplies do we have?”

“We have a good stock of Seraphim food,” said Michael. “But, once you learn to Pull, you can bring more and fresher food from the Seraphim home planet, or, if you prefer, from Earth.”

“How will we pay for supplies we Pull from Earth?” I asked.

Michael smiled, and Gabriel said, “Neil, you always ask the difficult question before time. But you will work out an answer for that. Right now, you should ask the simple, obvious question.”

“Yeah,” I said. “What cooking facilities do we have?”

“As good as anything on Earth,” replied Michael. “We have a fully equipped kitchen, with an oven of Seraphim manufacture. You know that we like to take brand names from Earth, so the makers call their brand Aga. But this oven is a chieftain, even among Agas.” He smirked. “So, we call it the Aga Khan.”

We all laughed. “So,” I asked, “who wants to do the cooking? Who Khan rule the Aga?”

I got no laughs, but three hands raised; Ray, Jenna and Marie. “Your credentials, please,” I said.

It turned out that Ray was a professional chef, and as Jenna was his wife and assistant, it wasn’t difficult to appoint them both. And, as Marie had done some years of restaurant cooking – and at an up-market French restaurant, too – we were all happy to let her be their stand-in.

“Now, to cleaning,” I said. “That is not necessary for you to do,” said Michael. “The robots that maintain this hotel will keep it clean. Mostly, you will not see them – they are too small. The largest and most active look like doorstops. Keep out of their way, and they will do their job.

“However,” he added, “we do have a few brushes and dustpans too, for emergencies.”

“And laundry?” I asked. “What facilities do we have for that?”

Michael replied, “We have robes enough for more than seven days for at least eighty humans. And we have an excellent laundry machine. Also of Seraphim manufacture. We call it George. Do you know why?”

“Because it’s a washing-tun,” I replied. A few titters from the Team, then, “Who will be Robemistress? Or Robemeister?” I asked. Shami eventually put up her hand for office. She was accepted nem con.

“Right,” I said. “Are there any other tasks we need to allocate before we get into the project?”

A slight pause, then “I’ll be the barman,” said Ben.

Laughter, then I said to Michael, “The supplies we have already, of course, include wine? And beer?”

“Yes, plenty of wine, both red and white,” said Michael. “But no beer. If you want beer, you will have to Pull it from Earth.”

Ben’s offer, too, was accepted without demur. “Any more?” I asked.

“I would like to be recorder,” said John. “I want to make a film record of the project. It may help when shown to people on Earth.”

“And it may help future projects with other species, too,” I added.

“I’ll be cameraman,” said Galina. “I have some experience.”

“You will first need to Pull a suitable camera from Earth. There are none here,” said Michael.

“So, what else do we have?” I asked. “We have Pedia access, I presume?”

“Yes,” said Michael. “But the database is more than two Earth months old. It came in the same cargo ship which brought the human-size furniture.”

“What communication facilities do we have outside Perinent?”

“When you have learned to Pull and Push, you will have direct communication with Earth. We can also Pull things from the Seraphim home planet, at need. For other planets, it is possible, but it takes time to set up. It will have to be justified on each occasion.”

After much more from all of us, Michael said, “I must take the ’mobile this afternoon to pick up the couple of Tuglay. Gabriel will remain, and I shall be back early tomorrow morning. Also this afternoon, Harv’I of the Elo’I, project manager, will arrive in his own ship. It may be quite noisy.”

Then, “Neil,” Michael said to me in front of all the Team, “this is the moment, at which the authority over the Team becomes truly yours. Gabriel and I are here to help, but the decisions are yours.”

I suddenly felt tired. Ship-lagged, perhaps. “Ray, Jenna, Marie,” I said, “please assess our kitchen and food resources, and prepare lunch for those who want it, and dinner for all of us. Ben, please do the same for our alcohol stores, and arrange a suitable celebration for our first evening here. Shami, please report on the clothing situation.

“Let’s all meet for dinner at 19 hours of the 22.” (I was glad that I had instituted the Perinent clock while we were on the ship. It saved a lot of potential disruption.) “Until then, let those, who have the energy, explore our new surroundings.” Yawn. “Don’t go too far.”

I was so tired, that I slept all afternoon, and didn’t even hear Harv’I’s landing a few kilometres away. But others were not so idle. Ray, Jenna, Marie and Ben all did their immediate tasks to perfection. And Dede came back with a report on the geography of our camp. Our first dinner on Perinent was festive.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Chapter 11. Of Our Arrival on Perinent

Next evening at dinner, there were two visitors I already knew – Ramael and Hazael. They had brought the Seraphimobile back to our segment, so Michael and Gabriel could take us in it to Perinent.

“How are you going to take the Skobar outside the ship now?” I asked Ramael. He winced. “We have been allocated an old rust-bucket,” he said. Hazael chuckled.

“Tomorrow morning,” said Michael at the end of the meal, “we leave this ship for Perinent. Please meet at the hotel’s main entrance, at the 85th revolution of our day.” (That was pretty much 9:30am, in Earth money.)

* * *

We met. No-one was late, though, as Team Leader, I made sure I came in last.

There were a few gathered to wish us well. Ramael and Hazael, and Olgal with them. And the birdlike guard, in his off-duty clothes, giving me his left-handed salute again.

We got in the ’mobile, rode to the lock, and went outside. All the Team – except me – gasped at the red stars on the one side, and the blue stars on the other.

Then Michael said, “Sorry, I have to put you all to sleep again.”

There was a short hiss of gas, there was pleasure, and there was sleep.

* * *

When I woke up, I was still in the Seraphimobile. It was like being in a plane coming in for a difficult landing. Nothing was still. Every moment, I was being moved in one direction or another. I stood up carefully, and looked around. Lily beside me was wide awake. A few of the others were stirring, but most were still asleep.

This part of Perinent was brown, mostly rocks and sand. Though, as I had learned from the Pedia, the area round our camp had plenty of water, buried underneath. The local terrain was flat, although I had seen mountains on the way in from the north.

We landed faster than an Earthly plane, kicking up a cloud of dust. Then Michael put the ’mobile’s nose well up, to about 60 degrees, and we began to decelerate smoothly.

We slowed and stopped outside a long, low building. It was – obviously – a hotel. A single-story hotel. But it was far too big for just the fourteen of us.

“Welcome to Perinent, Camp Two,” said Gabriel.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Chapter 10. Of Doctor Guran of the Galant’I

“It is now only a few days,” said Michael one evening after dinner, “before we must leave the ship and go to Perinent. One thing remains before we go there.

“There are magnetic and other force fields on Perinent, some of which will make you feel uncomfortable if you have metal in you, for example metal fillings in your teeth. Also, several of you suffer degenerative problems like arthritis. We have arranged that those of you, who wish it, can be treated by the Galant’I, who are the best doctors in the Galaxy.

“They will replace any metal you have inside you with equivalents, which will not cause you pain even when you are in strong fields. At the same time, they will ‘service’ your bodies, replace worn-out parts and generally put your bodies into their best possible working order.”

“Is there any pain from the treatment?” asked Marie.

“No,” said Michael. “The Galant’I have their own sleep-gas. It is not as pleasant to take as ours. But the sleep it gives is so deep and long that there can be no pain.”

“So,” I said, “who wants the Galant’I’s treatment?” Fourteen hands were raised. Not even Hoong or Dede, not even fit Sabrina or young Elise, were completely satisfied with the bodies they had.

At that moment, a being like a three-metre tall, slim cone on three stubby legs, with three considerably longer arms and wearing a light blue robe, came in. “I am Doctor Guran of the Galant’I,” he said. Michael and Gabriel bowed to him, then indicated to us that we should do the same.

“I can treat maximum four at a time,” said Guran. “Each of you will be asleep for about two hundred revolutions of the ship, or a little more. To treat all fourteen of you will take about nine hundred revolutions.”

“That is good,” said Michael, “but we have not much time left.”

I was angry with Michael. I would have planned this to happen earlier in the voyage, if I had been asked. But I bit back my anger, and said simply, “Volunteers for the first round?”

“I have a pin in my leg,” said Ben. “I’m going first.”

“I’m the oldest,” said John. “I’m going in the first group too.”

I felt I should hang back, to see first what effect the Galant’I treatment had on the others. “I will go last,” I said. “Lily, will you join me in the last group?”

The final order was worked out amicably, and Ben, John and Marie left with Doctor Guran of the Galant’I for the treatment rooms.

* * *

Next evening, only eleven of the Team met for dinner. Mutters were exchanged. But the atmosphere improved when Guran arrived with Marie. She looked zonked, but she said to us, “I know I look tired, and I am tired. But underneath, I feel better than for years.”

“Watch Marie recover!” said Guran. “She will soon have more energy than any of you.

“John will soon be up again, too. But Ben is a more difficult case. I never knew any species who put so much metal in their bodies as you humans! It is good that he was first to be treated, otherwise I might not have had enough time.”

Guran dined with us. For Galant’I can absorb energy in many forms, and Seraphim food is one of them. But it’s not pretty to watch or to listen to – the food has to be sucked up from under the skirt at the bottom of the cone.

By the end of dinner, Marie was becoming brighter almost by the minute. I decided I would give Guran the benefit of the doubt. “Cees, Galina, Shami, Hoong,” I said to the second batch of volunteers, “it’s your turn now. If you still want the treatment, please go with Doctor Guran after the meal.”

They all did.

* * *

Two evenings later – after John had re-appeared looking half his age, and Ben and the others had shaken off their sleepiness and acquired an energy I had not seen from them before – it was my turn.

It wasn’t exactly a fun experience. The Galant’I sleep-gas didn’t give any pleasure; it made my head spin, for several minutes, before I could finally relax into unconsciousness. And coming back took a long, long time. But, as promised, there was no pain at all.

And as soon as I was at last fully awake, I knew that Guran had done a good job. My teeth were more regular than for decades. My eyes were back to their full focus. Injuries to ribs and fingers were repaired. My aches and pains in knees, elbows, feet and ankles were gone. My energy level was back up to that of my twenties. But I was still, very much, me.

I had an all but new body. It was almost time to find a new world.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Chapter 9. Of the Skobar, and a Trip Outside the Ship

I spent that night in a room very like the one I shared with Lily in segment 20. In the morning, I had a call from Ramael of the Seraphim. “Please meet us outside the hotel’s main entrance,” he said.

I found there two Seraphim – slightly shorter and darker skinned than Michael and Gabriel, and their robes were pink. Ramael and Hazael, they introduced themselves as, in extremely good English.

There was a Seraphimobile parked not far away. They led me to it. When I got in, it was just like the one Michael had picked me up in. “Is this the same ’mobile I was in before?” I asked. “Yes,” said Hazael.

“But why do you have it here in segment 24,” I asked, “rather than Michael and Gabriel keeping it in segment 20?”

“It is needed more in this segment,” said Hazael.

Ramael suddenly said, “Sit back.” I obeyed, only just in time. Ramael was a much more active – I might almost say violent – pilot than Michael had been. For 30 seconds or so, it was like a fairground ride, bouncing, twisting and hammering me back or down into my seat.

When we landed, I could still see the hotel entrance, no more than half a kilometre away. “Why did we fly this short distance?” I asked. “Why didn’t we walk? Didn’t we unnecessarily use energy? Didn’t we pollute the atmosphere?”

“O-ha,” said Hazael. “I can answer your questions. One, you enjoyed it, didn’t you? Wasn’t it more fun than walking would have been?” I nodded enthusiastically. “So,” he continued, “flying rather than walking was a benefit to you. More fun for us, too.

“Two, we had anyway to bring the Seraphimobile here, to take the Skobar for their regular trip outside the ship. It’s for their health – they need doses of particular kinds of rays, which aren’t available inside the ship. You, Neil, can benefit from these rays too, so we will take you out there as well. Compared with the whole flight, bringing you here from the hotel costs hardly anything.

“Three,” continued Hazael, “walking uses more energy than flying the same distance – work it out. And four, it isn’t flying that pollutes the atmosphere, but lying.”

I smiled, for Hazael had only confirmed my own views.

Just then, three Skobar came out of the building by which we had stopped. They were light brown, and about a metre long; sometimes moving on all fours, sometimes standing on their hind legs. If you can see in your mind’s eye a cross between a lizard, a dachsund and a meercat, then you have seen the appearance of the likeness of the Skobar.

“These three,” Hazael said to me, “are the Lady Ydeniz, a professor, and two of her students, Cabal and Olgal.”

The first Skobar to come aboard had a light blue frill around her neck. Hazael introduced her to me. “Please meet the Lady Ydeniz, Mathematician, of the Skobar.”

“I greet you, Ydeniz,” I said. I pronounced the name as Hazael had; the Y like “ee” and with the stress on it, and the Z as in Spanish, a soft voiced “th.” “I am Neil of the Humans of Sol-3.”

“What is lur trade?” asked the Lady Ydeniz. Like Lohman of the Avor’I, she seemed to have a speech impediment – what should have been a “y” sound came out as a soft “l.”

I was fazed. I hadn’t before met a species who used their job descriptions as part of their names. “My trade,” I said at length, “is software – the building of non-sentient, semi-intelligent systems which are useful to us Humans. But, when I was young, I, like you, was trained in mathematics.”

Before Ydeniz could reply, Ramael said, “To your seats, please.” I, the Lady and her two companions obeyed. The Lady took a seat in the front row, and I took my usual position in the second, with Cabal and Olgal across the aisle from me.

We took off. A short journey to a kind of lock, in which we were lowered outside the ship. Then – we were in open space. I could see the ship, and the many lights on it, which stood out against the dull grey hull. And I could see the stars. It was – well, imagine a clear Earthly night with a full view of the Milky Way, then make that a 360 degree view and clearer than you’ve ever seen. And make most of the stars on one side red, and most on the other side blue.

We spent about half an hour out there, with Ramael at the controls taking us in lazy curves, in figures-of-eight and loops, sometimes slowing, sometimes racing forwards. It was a three-dimensional sports-car ride, and the Skobar seemed to enjoy it as much as I did. Then we went back to, and through, the lock, and a minute later I was back beside the building where we had picked up the Skobar.

As the Skobar trooped out of the Seraphimobile, Hazael said to me, “The Skobar live slower than you or us. Their day is more than twice as long as yours. They will not be ready to meet you for ten revolutions or so.”

“In the mean time, do you want breakfast?” asked Ramael. I was hungry, so I could utter only one word. “Please.”

Hazael, chuckling, produced a box-shaped hamper. “Fortnum and Mason,” it said on the side. But under this was a picture of two dark blue robed Seraphim.

“No, this food has never touched Earth,” said Ramael, seeing my confusion. “But we Seraphim are always on the lookout for good marketing ploys. And, if we borrow from species not yet in the Galactic fold, who loses? In fact, our friends who produce this food have formally changed their names to Fortnum and Mason.”

I pursed my lips. “We humans are already honoured in the Galaxy, but we do not know it,” I said.

“Quite,” said Ramael. “But, after your present project, you will receive your due honours,” added Hazael.

“One thing I find unexpected,” I said. “Why did you two learn English? I can understand why Michael and Gabriel learned it, but I can’t see why you needed to.”

“We didn’t need to,” said Hazael. “But we saw a decent chance that more Seraphim would be needed in the later stages of your project. So, we went on the same English course as Michael and Gabriel. To be fair, we didn’t expect an opportunity to use it as early as this.”

“I see,” I said. “Yes, knowing English would put you in what we call ‘pole position’ for an assignment.”

“Exactly,” said Hazael. “Besides, we Seraphim learn new languages easily.”

But talk did nothing for my hunger. So, I fell to the repast. Every time I had had Seraphim food before, it was really hotel food. Prepared to the style of the Seraphim, it is true; but not truly ethnic. But this was different. Not only was it food made by Seraphim for Seraphim. But it was of the very highest quality.

The tea – heated on a tiny stove, which came as part of the package – wasn’t bad, either. Unfortunately, there was no wine.

* * *

At length, the Skobar were ready to receive me. I stepped into their building with Hazael, and stopped. The place was almost completely dark. “They used, long ago, to be a burrowing species,” whispered Hazael to me.

My eyes gradually adjusted, and I saw first the light blue frill around the Lady Ydeniz’s neck. Then, I saw the three Skobar, on couches on three sides of a square. Last, I saw the seat set for me on the fourth side. Both Cabal and Olgal had their muzzles pointing towards my place.

I sat. Hazael left the room. “Our greetings were interrupted,” I said to the Lady Ydeniz. “You didn’t have time to tell me of your trade. Please tell me of the mathematics you have done.”

“Among the Skobar, I first proved the Simultanelity Thelorem,” said the Lady. “That there is a set – indeed, an uncountable infinity of sets – of events which are all at the same time, regardless of where the observer may be. That effect is loosed in the drives of ships like this.”

“On the planet I come from,” I replied, “a man called Einstein seems to have proved that nothing can exceed the speed of light. I know that’s wrong, of course – otherwise I wouldn’t be on this ship.”

“Lu see well,” said the Lady, without apparent irony. “But did lur Einstein include conshusness in his equazhuns? Did he know the fifth-power law of conshus invenshun? Did he know why time flows?”

“No,” I admitted. “Mathematicians where I come from have tried to include consciousness in their ideas, but they haven’t succeeded.”

“Well, they should try harder,” said the Lady.

“Dear Lady,” I said a little later, “I have come here to talk to you, because my species is next to use the camp on Perinent, which you Skobar used to haul yourselves up to Junior Galactic status. I wish to know how you did that, and to adapt the knowledge to our own case.”

“Cabal, Olgal,” said the Lady in a Margaret Thatcher tone, “do lu have anything to say to our guest before we move on?”

The male, Cabal, shook his head, but the female Olgal said, diffidently, “Welcome, Nil. It is good to meet another speshes who study mathematics too.”

The Lady seemed to frown, but I nodded and smiled at Olgal. I knew from my Pedia studies that Skobar society was hierarchical, almost feudal. But I hadn’t realized it went so far as not to allow students to speak until their professor gave them permission. If the Skobar can become Junior Galactic despite this, I thought, it should be a breeze for us humans.

“Right,” I said to the Lady. “Please tell me about what you experienced in the run-up to going Galactic.”

“At first,” she said after a pause, “it seemed rather strange. On Skobar, we had many kings and princes, a floo qeens and princesses, some good, some bad. Suddenly, some of the worst of them, without warning, disapplared.” “Was that good?” I asked.

“Les and no,” the Lady answered. “In some places, better kings or princes took over. In others, there was vilent chalos. But then, where there was political vilence, the instigators of that vilence, too, disapplared. Then we received messages, that the bad kings and princes, and the makers of vilence, had been taken for punishment. And we saw images of some of them being punished.

“At the same time, or a little before, some ordinary, good, successful Skobar disapplared too. But this was different. Many left messages like, ‘I’ve been taken across the Galaxy for training in how to liberate all good Skobar. Watch out for my return.’

“Cabal,” said the Lady, “lu were with my colleague Professor Franzell, when he was taken. Please tell what lu saw.”

Cabal said, “Suddenly, I heard a clinking sound, and the Professor, who was upright, seemed to fall. Then he was not there any more.”

The Lady said, “When Professor Franzell came back, he had changed. He could lead Skobar. He went into government, and he is now president of our Loonited Qeendom of Daliman and Shepoë. He has replaced the old régime, the stloopid old qeen with her evil courtlers, with a Galactic style government, which aims to treat every individlal, over the long term, as he or she treats others.”

We talked for a while more, but eventually, “Thank you,” I said to the Lady. “That was very helpful to me. Do either of you” – looking at Cabal and Olgal – “want to say more?”

Cabal grimaced, but Olgal said, “With lur permission, Lady.” The Lady looked sick. “I give it,” she said in a tone almost below hearing.

Olgal said, “The Seraphim have told me that there are vacancies in lur Team to go to Perinent. Will lu take me? As a Skobar, I have been through what lur race will soon go through. And as a Galactic, I want to help bring a nloo speshes into the Galaxy.”

The Lady said, formally, “Olgal, lu have forsworn my protecshun, and attached lurself to Nil as lur master. I need two witnesses to lur oath.”

“Come, Ramael and Hazael,” I called out. They appeared in the brilliantly lit doorway.

“Olgal,” I said, after a deep breath, “I regret that I cannot accept you as a member of my Team. I do not even know whether I have the authority to do so. But I already see practical reasons – different food, different day lengths, for example – why, unplanned, it would not work for you to come with us humans to Perinent.

“That said, I thank you for your application, Olgal, and I hope that, when we humans have become Junior Galactics, you will be invited to Earth to help our mathematicians learn about consciousness.”

Olgal looked distraught. The Lady Ydeniz looked worse – she regurgitated her last meal. “Olgal,” she ground out, “lu have forsaken me, but Nil does not accept lur felalty. Lu are an outcast Skobar.”

“It is my turn to speak,” said Hazael, loudly. Then, to Olgal, “Olgal, in view of your achievements so far in your life, and your obvious enthusiasm for the Galaxy, I offer you full Galactic citizenship, independent of the status of your species, the Skobar.”

“I accept,” said Olgal, smiling as if with relief.

We left the building, where Cabal seemed to be trying to comfort the Lady. The Seraphimobile was only a few steps outside.

Olgal came with us to the hotel. The four of us had drinks in the bar. I said to Olgal, “I am sorry I had to reject you for my Team.” She only smiled. But Hazael said, “Neil, you did what was right. And so, you gave us the opportunity to give Olgal her chance.”

And then to Olgal, “Olgal, you now have freedom to pursue whatever career you want. But I – we – know someone who is looking for an intelligent assistant like you. He is an Avor’I,” – intake of breath from Olgal – “and he works for the Company for Galactic Advancement, and he only recently left this ship.”

“His name is Lohman,” I said, stressing the Scottish style “ch.” “I have already met him. He’s one of the good guys.”

Ramael and Hazael laughed. “Neil knows much,” said Hazael. “Not yet enough,” I replied.

* * *

Next day, I embarked on the train journey back to segment 20. When I got off the train, the same birdlike guard gave me a smirk and a left-handed salute. And Michael and Lily met me beyond the exit.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Chapter 8. A Railway Journey, and a Friendly Squirrel

“Yes,” Michael said to me the next day. “There is a party of three Skobar currently on the ship. But none of them were on Perinent. And they are four segments down-axis from here. It is not a comfortable journey.”

“Were these individuals on Skobar while the project was in progress?” I asked. “Did they experience the effects on their home planet of what was being done on Perinent?”

“Yes,” said Michael.

“Then I think I can learn from them,” I said.

* * *

Opposite the hotel’s main elevator shafts, I had already seen a guarded door. Those who went through that door presented large, red tickets. Two days after my conversation with Michael, I found myself presenting such a ticket to the tall, rather birdlike, black-uniformed guard.

“Ah – four segments down and return,” he said. “You are going to segment 24?”

“I am going to the segment where there are Skobar,” I replied carefully. That seemed to satisfy the guard. “Please follow me,” he said.

He led me to a long, thin room – “A railway carriage,” I thought. With several areas, glassed off from each other, of seats – and what looked like toilet facilities – of many different shapes. The one he led me to had, on the outside, a large sign showing “//---” – the Galactic symbol for 24. (Galactics use the binary system for small whole numbers, since it is common to all species.)

This area had already an occupant, who looked like a chocolate-brown squirrel, with a body about a metre long, and a tail of similar length.

The guard drew aside the door. I entered, and found the atmosphere stale and farmyardy. The guard closed the door behind me, bowed and retreated. The squirrel smiled at me, then gave the Galactic informal greeting for strangers. “Well met, friend.”

“Well met,” I replied. “I am Neil of the Humans of Sol-3.”

“And I am Rrrela,” the squirrel replied. “I do not use a species name any more, only my individual name.”

It was my turn to make conversation, and I couldn’t think of much. “I wonder,” I asked eventually, “where you have come from?”

After a slight pause, the squirrel said, “From which segment, you mean? I have come from 16. I am going, like you, to 24. And what, pray, brings you on this journey?”

“I am going to learn what I can from the Skobar, a species who recently became Junior Galactics. I am trying to help my species follow in their path.”

“I wish you and your species success in your quest,” said Rrrela.

I chose a seat near Rrrela – it quickly fitted itself to my shape. It was not long before the train started moving. The motion was gently boring, in a tunnel, with always the feeling that we were going slightly downhill.

“Watch out when we enter the new segment!” said Rrrela suddenly.

A few moments later, the train was surrounded by brilliant light, and I saw that we were travelling slowly on a tiny thread high above the ground. The land below looked very inhospitable, and there was a slight greenish tinge to the atmosphere.

“This is Segment 21,” said Rrrela. “You could not survive in its atmosphere unaided. Too much chlorine.”

We lost altitude steadily, and eventually rolled underground and in to the station of Segment 21. Some passengers got off. I noticed, in particular, a pair of large, green, troll-like beings. A few others got on. No-one joined me and Rrrela in our Segment-24 enclosure.

There was a long wait in the station. “First,” explained Rrrela, “they have to vacuum clean the area for those who left at Segment 21. And they need to allocate, and to fill with the right atmospheres, sections for those going further down-axis. Only then can they let on the passengers for those segments, and only then can we go.”

I waited patiently, and talked with Rrrela about many things.

Three times this rigmarole was repeated. And then, I was in Segment 24. A brightly-coloured sheep – or so I thought – came to let us out of the compartment. Rrrela turned to me. “May all your doings bring you justice and happiness,” he said.

“And the same to you,” was all I could muster in return. Rrrela smiled.

The sheep led us to the exit. The atmosphere was still farmyardy, but it was less noticeable. The sheep took my ticket, said, “Ah! Seraphim accommodation. That is easy enough.” Then punched buttons on a machine, and said to me, “Wait here till a transport chair comes to take you to 66F255.”

“How do I know when and where my meeting with the Skobar is?” I asked myself a little forlornly. No-one had told me how I found my way to meet the Skobar. Maybe, I thought, this was an initiative test. Could it be that to come all this way, and to miss my meeting with the Skobar, would make me and the human race the laughing-stock of the Galaxy?

“Do not worry,” said Rrrela behind me, showing that he was a telepathic receiver, if not more. “There are Seraphim in this segment as well as in segment 20, and they know you are coming. Sleep without fear, and Ramael or Hazael will contact you when you are rested.”

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Chapter 7. Of Lohman of the Avor'i

One evening at dinner, Michael told me there was a visitor who wanted to see me the next day.

“His name is Lohman of the Avor’I,” said Michael. (The “h” was hard, much like “ch” in the Scottish “loch.”) “He works in the Company for Galactic Advancement, and he is an assistant to Balzo, who has the overall responsibility for our project. He has been briefed by Balzo, and he wishes to meet you and to pass on to you the information he has been given. I have arranged for you, Neil, to meet him tomorrow, in room 0B420, at the 110th revolution of our day.”

110 revolutions meant midday, or three and a half hours after our usual getting-up time. So after dinner, instead of going to bed Lily and I went to the library to find out as much as we could about the Avor’I.

And they were some species. Lizards in origin, but having adapted themselves to walking upright. Their reputation for getting things done was the strongest in the Galaxy, and it showed in their position in the per-head Galactic wealth list – third. (Who were first and second, I wondered?)

* * *

Morning, our time, came. Because of the time we had spent in the library, breakfast was late and a bit of a rush. Lily and I arrived at 0B420 with – by my best guess – six minutes to spare before the meeting.

Michael met us at the door. “Lily,” he said, “to speak with Lohman of the Avor’I is for Neil only, as Team Leader. Even I am not allowed to attend this meeting. Please wait outside with me.”

I went in, and saw a tall upright lizard, with dark green skin and wearing a bright orange robe. As he saw me, he smiled.

“Greetings,” said Lohman. “I am Lohman of the Avor’I of Avoran-2, and I represent the Company for Galactic Advancement.”

It was good that he was a speaker in sounds. For a start, it gave me plenty of time to reply. This was the first time I had been addressed in the formal Galactic manner. Our contacts with other species in the hotel, or in the ship’s parks, had always been informal. I had to compose myself.

“I greet you, Lohman,” I said. “I am Neil of the Humans of Sol-3, and I lead the Team on our project.”

“Well met, Nil,” said Lohman. That meant I’d passed the first test. It also told me that Lohman couldn’t pronounce my name. Why the translator didn’t compensate for it, I didn’t know.

“I have been asked,” he continued, “by Balzo, manager of the project, to tell u more about it. But it is best, I think, if u ask ur questshuns first. So fire away.”

(I didn’t know it then, but after his meeting with Bart Vorsprong, Balzo had studied human slang, and had started using it with his assistants, including Lohman.)

“Right. First, why are we going to Perinent?”

“Because it is a good place to do what u need to do. The Galactic force feelds there are – helpful. From Perinent, u can easily interfare in what happens on Earth. U will be able to Pull Hoomans from Earth; bad individals for punishment, good individals for training to be leaders. And u will be able to Push them back, when u need to.”

“Second,” I asked, “exactly what standards do we human beings have to meet in order to be accepted as Junior Galactics? Where is the finishing line for this project?”

Lohman looked fazed. He was an Avor’I – a competent member of the species who controlled more Galactic projects of consequence than any other. And he had been asked an awkward question by this, not so young, whipper-snapper from a species who, however talented, had not yet been admitted even as Juniors!

But Lohman knew what he was doing. Michael had told him that I had looked at the Galactic Association’s Statement of Principles. So he asked me if I had read those Articles – a nod from me – and how well I felt the human race currently measured up.

“Bloody awfully,” I said. “But the problems aren’t caused by us humans, but by the political species that are among us, and want to rule over us.”

Lohman thought, They still suffer a political sub-speshes among them, but they are almost ready to become Junors? Maybe they come nair to an Awakening. It is very, very unoozhul for all three Transishuns – Personal, Soshul and Economic – to occur at the same time. Indeed, only five speshes Awakenings have been recorded in Galactic history. Including the Avor’I.

Including the Avor’I.

He looked at me, and I looked at him, and he knew that I knew what he had just thought about, and that our two species had a lot in common.

And I knew that somehow, without knowing how, I had acquired some ability to receive thought. I had started a journey from being a mere transmitter towards making myself into a full telepath.

Our conversation continued. Lohman explained, among much else, how the proposal to admit us as Junior Galactics would be put forward by the project manager and consultant – Balzo and Bart Vorsprong. And that, after review and agreement by the top figures in the Company for Galactic Advancement, our admission would be ratified by the Board of the Galactic Association. Then the celebrations could begin.

Lohman eventually said, “We must move on. When u get to Perinent, u will take over a camp formerly occipied by a speshes called the Skobar. They are now Junor Galactics. U will have help from the Seraphim, but mostly u will have to do everything for urselves. U will have about one month of Earth time, before the project consultant, Bart Vorsprong, visits u to start the project ringing.

“There will be a project manager on site – Harv’I of the Elo’I. He is a good individal, but the Elo’I are a difficult speshes.”

And after a pause, and with a smile, “U must make ur own decizhuns, Nil.”

To which I replied, “Do I ever do anything but?”

We both chuckled. And so, it was time for the parting. “I wish u everything I wish for myself,” said Lohman.

I could find no better parting in reply than, “Have a nice day in a great Universe.”

* * *

After Lohman had departed, Michael and Lily led me to the hotel bar. I was exhausted. Fifty minutes’ conversation with an Avor’I had tired me more than a whole day’s walk in the park.

“Wow,” said Michael, “did you make an impression! Not always the right one, of course. But you did a great job; you made a bond with him. When Lohman gets off this ship – and he hasn’t much further to go – he will signal to Balzo, ‘These humans are special.’”

“Right,” I said, and then, “Are there any Skobar on the ship? If so, I want to meet them.”

Monday, 14 October 2013

Chapter 6. Of the Pedia

I spent much time in the hotel’s library, both with and without Lily. And I learned much.

One resource, in particular, I found invaluable. It was called the “Galactic Information Exchange.” It was a fount of knowledge from Galactics, for Galactics. It could, of course, not entirely be trusted; but, when wrong, it could be, often quickly, corrected.

But we humans, in a way, were ahead of the Galactics. For we already had an Earthly example of such a resource, and a snappy name for it: Wikipedia.

The Galactic Information Exchange was generally considered to be reliable, except on contentious issues. Certainly, it was more reliable than the Earthly Wikipedia, because it used the input of experts effectively, and had strong mechanisms in place to prevent bias by authors or editors.

And I learned much from it. I understood, for example, the layout of a ship like 18162-V. Cone-shaped and three thousand or so kilometres long, it was divided into sixty-four sections or segments. Each (after the first few, which contained the drive mechanism) provided a different combination of gravity and atmosphere for its passengers. Yet I could find nothing at all about the physics of the drive which powered the ship. (This was behind a paywall, I found out later.)

And, of the species who piloted the ship, the Naudar’I, I could find little, except that they are one of the very few Galactic species who are incorporeal; that is, made entirely of mind rather than matter.

But I found out much about the Seraphim. That they are, as Michael had claimed, the most sought-after pilots in the Galaxy for journeys within solar systems. That they live in pairs, but have no gender. That they do not need sleep, and do not die, except by violence or accident. That they are, per head, the 43rd richest species in the Galactic Association.

I also remembered that Michael had named our project consultant as Bart Vorsprong of the Tefla. I looked up the Tefla, and found them to be a large constricting snake species, very skilled in science and in law, but who also delight in jokes and puns. And are 12th in the Galaxy’s rich-list – well above the Seraphim.

And there was an article on Bart Vorsprong, too. It was not overly complimentary – perhaps it had been written or edited by a rival, testing the limits of the medium. Yet, it admitted, he was co-author of the definitive work on the many different ways by which Galactic species reproduce. And he was now a professor in the Department for Species Emergence, in the Company for Galactic Advancement.

It looked as if we humans had on our side someone who could, perhaps, run rings round anyone wanting to deny us Junior Galactic status.

* * *

I also looked for information on the Galactic Association. There wasn’t much, but I did find the Statement of Principles of the Association. I noticed a few interesting clauses there:

  • (Article 2.) The Galaxy is an honest place. Knowing use of lies, deceit or double standards by Galactics will lead to graduated ostracism of the individuals, and where necessary in extreme cases, expulsion of the species.

  • (Article 3.) The Galaxy is a peaceful place. Violent aggression is not acceptable among Galactic species, or against species who are candidates for admission to the Galactic Association.

  • (Article 5.) The Galaxy is a free place. Any Galactic individual may do anything they wish, as long as they accept responsibility for the consequences, and are not aggressive, malicious, dishonest or unreasonable.

  • (Article 7.) The Galaxy is a productive place. No Galactic may put any obstacle in the way of others’ wealth creation, unless they or others are provably harmed by its effects.

  • (Article 11.) The Galaxy is a place of individuality. Each Galactic individual is to be respected as, and judged according to their actions as, an individual.

  • (Article 13.) The Galaxy is a just place. Individuals deserve to be treated, in the round and over the long term, as they treat others.

  • (Article 17.) The Galaxy is a place of moral equality. No Galactic may claim any right to do anything which they deny others the right to do in similar situations.
* * *

When I spoke to Michael about these things, he was astonished by how much I had learned. “Where did you find all this?” he asked.

“In the Pedia,” I replied.

With furrowed brow, Michael asked, “Media?”

“No, Pedia.”

I had just changed the Galaxy – in a small way. Many of those travelling in ship 18162-V were soon convinced, and it spread through the Galaxy as the travellers dispersed. The Galactic Information Exchange was no longer always called by that name, but frequently by a much catchier one: the Pedia.

I did that!

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Chapter 5. Of Life in the Ship

I see I have failed to tell you some important things about the conditions we lived in on the ship 18162-V. The gravity, for example. It was a little less than Earth standard. And it was produced, as you might expect, by rotation.

As I learned later, the ship was shaped like a cone, rotating about its axis in about six of our minutes. The living areas were on the inside of the cone. We were about a third of the way from the cone’s point to its base, so that near the base the rotation would produce around three Earth gravities, more comfortable for those species from heavier planets.

The public areas of the hotel were hot by Earth standards, about 30 degrees Celsius. The atmosphere was quite dry, too. Our rooms, and the meeting rooms the Seraphim reserved for us, were a little cooler, around 25 degrees. Some of the Team, particularly John and Galina, found it too hot; but those who, like me, would have enjoyed a warmer world, basked.

The atmosphere was Earthlike, with a little more oxygen than we were used to. It smelled OK. I also heard that there was about three times more carbon dioxide in it than on Earth, and almost none of the inert gas argon – some Galactic species, apparently, are allergic to argon.

There was no day or night in the hotel. The lights were on all the time, unless you turned them off in your particular space. That meant that we had to agree on a cycle of what we would think of as night and day. When I asked Michael about this, be told me that Galactics usually picked a power of 2, and made their day-cycle that number of revolutions of the ship. In our case, that would be 256 revolutions, a little longer than an Earth day.

“How long is the day on Perinent?” I asked Michael.

“Actually, it’s shorter than on Earth,” he said. “About two hours shorter.”

“So, shouldn’t we have a shorter day here too, to get us acclimatized?”

Michael gaped, but I continued, “Why don’t we establish our day-cycle as 220 revolutions, not 256? About 22 of our Earth hours?”

“It is not normally done so,” said Michael after a pause. “But I know no reason why not. Let us do that.”

* * *

Each day, at the evening meal, we would all meet to enjoy each other’s company, the knowledge and wisdom of Michael and Gabriel, and the food and wine of the Seraphim. And the wine was most pleasant, tasting as good as or better than Earthly wine, and higher in alcohol.

Maybe it had other effects too. For the Team began rapidly to pair off. Ray and Jenna were already a couple; and John and Galina soon acquired, via request to the ship’s management, a room together – with extra cooling.

It was the women who took the initiative. Lily wanted to be the Team Leader’s woman; and it didn’t take long in her bed to convince me that I wanted that too. Marie, likewise, enraptured the shy Cees. Sabrina picked the maverick Ben, more than twice her age. That left two pairs a little better matched in age, Dede with Shami, and Hoong with Elise.

Michael and Gabriel seemed pleased that we had paired up so quickly; after all, using only half the number of rooms saved the project many credits.

* * *

To communicate with other species, each of us had a small translator machine. I fitted mine to the middle finger of my left hand. When we encountered other species, our translators converted the other species’ language into spoken English for us. And the others’ machines translated our English into their own means of communication. It might be sounds, or light patterns, or dots on moving paper, or (very rarely) smells; or it might be telepathy.

I soon found something strange when I met telepathic species. They seemed to be able to understand me without needing translators! But I couldn’t understand them in return without my machine. Even stranger, if I spoke to a telepath with Lily present, she could tell me what the reply was before my machine could.

When I asked Michael about this, he said, “Few species are fully telepathic; yet many have some ability to communicate by thought. Of you humans, about one in five hundred can transmit, and about the same number receive. You are a transmitter, and Lily is a receiver.

“If you wonder why Gabriel looked uncomfortable when he first met you, it was because he is a receiver, and he understood your thoughts. In your presence, it was very hard for him to remain silent, as the Code of the Seraphim at that moment required him to do.”

* * *

A few days into the journey, I asked Michael to tell me more about Perinent. “You’ve already told me about the length of the day,” I said. “But how else will the conditions we face there differ from what we enjoy here?”

Michael took me to the library. It was a bit like an Internet café, with lots of different species perched in front of terminals on various kinds of chairs and frames, all intently typing, speaking or transmitting in different ways, and seeing, hearing or otherwise receiving the results.

There, Michael showed me how to search and navigate, and how to configure the terminal to show pages in English. Then, I looked up Perinent. Physically, Perinent-2 was a typical habitable planet. A little larger than Earth, but less dense, so the gravity would be about ten per cent lower. A world with greater extremes of climate than Earth, because it had more land and less oceans. It had six camps on it, described as “Galactic nurseries.” Equally distributed over the planet, four in 45 degree latitudes, the other two on the equator.

“Our home will be Camp Two,” said Michael, showing the one in 45 degrees north, on the opposite side to the longitudinal zero.

I had many more questions to ask, but I decided that was enough for now.

* * *

We of the Team soon settled into a routine. The fixed point was the joyful evening meal, occupying two hours or so of our twenty-two-hour cycle. After dinner, Lily and I would take the sleep-gas. A standard dose (far less than we had been given in the Seraphimobile) gave eight hours of deep, refreshing sleep, and ensured that we had no problems with the short day-cycle.

Then, after breakfast, we might spend the day in the library finding out and understanding more about the Galaxy, or exploring the parks around the hotel. Sometimes on foot, a good way to meet other guests doing the same. And sometimes flying in two- or four-seat aircars. Our section of the ship, known as Segment 20, was about fifty kilometres along the axis, and a little less than two hundred to circumnavigate. So there was plenty to explore.

Hoong was the best pilot among the Team – good enough, indeed, to be asked several times to taxi-drive for species who were not physiologically equipped to pilot themselves. Lily was a pretty decent pilot, too.

After the day, back in the room, Lily and I would clean ourselves. And then we would both enjoy the pleasure she made, until it was time for dinner again.

It was too good to be true. And I was being paid for it! In an account on Tener-3, one of the Galaxy’s strongest and safest banking havens, my credit was building up. And, by Earthly standards, plenty of it too.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Chapter 4. Of the Team

I woke in a hotel room. At least, that was my first impression. I was nude and alone in a comfortable bed, and the layout of the room seemed familiar.

But, I soon saw, this was no Earthly hotel. The bed was much longer than I would have expected, and higher off the floor as well. There wasn’t any literature on the desk telling me why I should embrace the latest enviro fad. Nor even telling me when and where breakfast was. And it was warm, several degrees warmer than you’d expect in a hotel room on Earth if the air conditioning was working.

When I padded into the bathroom, I found a tub almost big enough to drown me. I’m in a hotel, yes, I thought. But the room I’m in is made for Seraphim.

I used the tub, which was pleasantly cleansing. Then, I looked around for my clothes, and they weren’t there. Instead, there was a white gown-like robe, about my size, draped over a large brown armchair. With it were a lightweight, plain white T-shirt and shorts. And next to the armchair was a pair of stout brown shoes, with socks laid on top of them.

I swore several times, then I put the clothes on.

There was no phone in the room. But there was a metallic grille about where you’d expect a phone to be. I heard a sudden clack, and then Michael’s voice coming from it. “Good morning, Neil,” he said. “Are you ready to join us for breakfast?”

I spluttered. “Am I ready to join who?”

“The Team, of course,” he said.

“What Team?”

“The Team, that’s our party of fourteen humans on this ship. And if you remember, you’re the Team Leader.” I did remember, now.

The mention of breakfast had made me hungry. So, “How do I get to you?” I asked.

“We are at hotel co-ordinates 0B404,” said Michael. “See the big brown armchair in your room, with a foot-rest? It is a transport chair. Do you see a pad of buttons on the right arm-rest? And next to it, a card in English, telling you which button is which?”


“Then sit in the chair, and press 0, B, 4, 0, 4 on the buttons. Then press Confirm. Your chair will take you to us. It will take a few minutes to get here.”

I obeyed. The armchair lifted slightly off the floor, then made for the door. The door opened, and we went through. The corridor wasn’t much different from a corridor in an Earthly hotel – just bigger. And the lifts or elevators, at first glance, didn’t look much different either. Except… all the doors were open.

The armchair made for one of the shafts, though I could see there wasn’t a lift there. I tensed, but suddenly relaxed again. At least, I was glad I hadn’t tried to walk.

The armchair took me backwards into the shaft, then dropped gently. A little time passed. Then, it exited through another opening into a public area. The guests, I saw, were of many different species. Some like lizards, some like monkeys or humans, some like snakes, a few like horses, pigs or cattle, some like plants or trees, and some like nothing I had ever seen before. Many were on moving platforms or climbing-frames, or in chairs like mine, or on larger transport sofas. And about half of them wore robes, or frills, of various colours.

The armchair took me to a door where Michael, again dressed in a yellow robe, met me. “Welcome, Neil,” he said. I got out of the chair, and it parked itself against the wall at the end of a row of similar chairs.

I went through the door. There were thirteen people already in the room, some eating, some drinking coffee. All wore white robes like mine. And there was another Seraph. He looked exactly like Michael, except he had a mole on his left cheek. His name, I knew without having to ask, was Gabriel.

There was a breakfast buffet. Some things in it looked and tasted how you’d expect in an Earthly breakfast – the bacon, for example. Others were recognizable, but had slightly different flavours. Yet others were – well, weird. Not nasty at all, but weird. That included the “coffee.” I stuck with the tea, which was a bit weird too, but grew on me.

“This is Seraphim food,” said Michael to me. “But do not worry, our metabolisms are close. You need have no fear of poison, and you will find our food most nourishing.”

I took the hint, and didn’t take that extra rasher (or two) of bacon.

* * *

When we had finished breakfast, Michael invited us all to move to the conference area.

Imagine the scene. Fourteen people of most ages, sizes and races, all in white robes, in the audience in a conference room. At the podium, two yellow-robed Seraphim, human in design, but bigger and blockier.

“Welcome, Team,” said Michael. “All of you already know something of why you are here. And all of you have met either me, or Gabriel, before.” Gabriel smiled.

“I will tell you more. We are now in the Galactic Far Transport Vessel 18162-V, on a major stage of our journey to a planet called Perinent. That is a good place for you to perform the tasks you have agreed to do, to secure the admission of the human species into the Galaxy.”

So Galactics don’t name their ships as floridly as some Earthly science fiction writers imagine, I thought.

Gabriel looked at me uneasily, but Michael continued. “Our journey on this ship will be about eight of your Earth weeks. You have free use of the ship’s hotel facilities and parks, and freedom to meet other species.

“But I must say to you, that since you are not yet admitted to Junior Galactic status, I and Gabriel will be held personally responsible for your behaviour. Please don’t make trouble for us.”

There was a pause, then a South African voice to my right, “Where’s the bar?” Laughter, then I said, “Great idea, but shouldn’t we get to know each other first?”

Michael smiled and blanched at the same time. “I forgot to tell you,” he said, pointing to me, “that we have already selected Neil as Team Leader. He is the one who has to resolve any disputes between you. He will also have the responsibility to interface with the project managers when we get to Perinent.”

Project managers, plural? I thought. Recipe for disaster. Gabriel looked even uneasier than before.

“Right,” I said. “Let’s introduce ourselves. I’ll go first. I’m Neil, I’m from England, and by most people’s standards I’m gently mad. And, for my sins, I’m your Team Leader. Now it’s your turn – clockwise, please.”

I had already met Cees from Holland, young Elise from Sweden and fifty-ish Galina from Russia. I rapidly met: Ray and Jenna, a couple from Australia. Ben, two metres tall, mid fifties, from South Africa. Lily, slim and thirties, from Sierra Leone. Shami, a teacher from India. Dede from Indonesia. Sabrina, young and fit, from Hong Kong. Hoong an electrical engineer from Beijing. John – the oldest of us at 73 – from Minneapolis. And Marie, an artist from New Orleans. Fairly well spread across the globe, but no South Americans, for some reason.

After Marie introduced herself, I said, “Michael, can you please tell us again, so all of us have it quite clear, why we’re here?”

“Yes,” said Michael. “This is the first Team meeting of the Human Birth Project, Galactic No. DSE/11619/BV. The purpose of this project is to bring your human race to the level where you can be admitted to Junior Galactic status.”

“And why were we fourteen chosen for the Team?”

Gabriel looked apoplectic, but remained silent. Michael replied, “You were, in the opinion of our project consultant, Bart Vorsprong of the Tefla, the best equipped individuals on Earth for the job.

“But there should have been sixteen of you. Two pick-ups were missed. This is why Gabriel is silent. According to the Code of the Seraphim, any Seraph pilot who misses a pick-up may not speak until he has been pardoned for his failure.”

“I can add to that,” said John. “When Gabriel had picked up me and Marie, he turned south to make more pick-ups. But, as we flew towards South America, missiles were fired at us. He didn’t want to shoot down the missiles; that would have caused panic below. So he evaded them, but that meant he couldn’t make the pick-ups in time.”

I had a sudden feeling of power, and said, “Let Gabriel speak.”

Gabriel relaxed, and said, “John tells the truth. I failed in part of my assignment, so there are only fourteen humans in the Team, instead of the sixteen planned. I am sorry.”

“Understood and forgiven,” I said. “Thank you,” said Gabriel.

Then I said, “I think I’ll exert my authority as Team Leader. That’s enough of business for now. Let’s take Ben’s suggestion, and all repair to the bar. Where you, Michael and Gabriel, will tell us how we are to live on this ship.

“Tell us how to get back to our rooms, how to get transport around the ship, where everything is – including the food and drink. Tell us how we get the daily things done, like having our robes laundered. Tell us what there is to do on the ship, and what we must, and mustn’t, do to avoid offence. Tell us how we should ask for services, how we know what they cost, how we charge the project for them. Tell us how we talk to species who don’t know English.”

“We don’t need to go to the bar,” replied Michael. “We already have everything we need right here in this room.” He pointed to what had replaced the breakfast buffet. “Including alcoholic refreshments for later, of course.”

Monday, 23 September 2013

Chapter 3. Of My Abduction

One Sunday afternoon in spring, I was walking on a heathland in southern England – I will not name the place. Suddenly I saw, up in the air to the left of me, a black speck. It seemed to be coming towards me.

Is it a plane? I thought. Too small. Is it a helicopter? Too silent. Is it Superman? It’s the wrong colour. Is it the Flying Spaghetti Monster? No noodly appendage visible.

I stopped and looked. It was getting bigger.

I put my rucksack down beside the path, and sat on it. I had decided this could be interesting, so I would stay and see who it was.

The craft came in silently, nose well up as it decelerated, and landed on the heath about ten metres from me.

On the ground, it was as much silver as black. Maybe fifteen metres long, the back two-thirds a flattened cylinder about four times as wide as high, the front third moving forward to a point. Two tiny wings about half way along, looking like useless decorations.

A man got out. Well, not a man – for he was taller and broader than any human on the record. He was two and a half metres tall at least. He was wearing a dark yellow robe, like an academic gown. And his face had a sheen that was almost golden.

“Hello,” he said, in perfect English. “Are you Neil?”

“I am,” I replied, “and who are you?”

“My name is Michael,” he said.

Now, I had heard of Michael the archangel. And this guy fitted his description. It was in me to guffaw, but instead I asked, “What do you want with me?”

He said, “I have a proposition to put to you. It will take only a few minutes of your time to decide. But I am on a tight schedule. So, would you like to take a ride in my ’mobile here, while I tell you what I ask? No charge to you, of course.”

Having seen a very little of what the machine could do, of course I wanted a ride. But I was cautious. Sales Pitch No. 1, I thought. Fun – at someone else’s expense! No sale, yet at least.

“Not so fast,” I said. “Tell me here and now what you propose.”

Michael frowned, and started to intone like a newsreader. “The human race faces terrible problems today. Your political system has failed. All humans face extermination unless our project to save you succeeds. Do you want to die with the rest of them?”

Sales Pitch No. 2, I thought. Fear, Uncertainty, Despair. No sale here either. But I clawed at something he had said.

“Michael,” I said, “you’re not going to sell me anything with that pitch. But what’s this about a project to save us?”

Michael brightened, and his voice became more normal. “I am here to help my friends bring you humans into the Galactic Association, Junior Section. You can help this project; and if you are willing to do so, we can help you richly in return.”

Aha. There’s a job offer coming, I thought.

“Come on,” I said to Michael. “Get to the point, man.”

Michael smiled. “I offer you,” he said, “a contract, on Galactic Scale 15A, with the Company for Galactic Advancement, as Team Leader of the human team on the Human Birth Project, No. DSE/11619/BV. The contract will last around two Earth years, and we will pay you many times what you earn today. All your living expenses will be taken care of, too. And you will be compensated for any losses you may suffer on Earth as a result of being away.”

I paused. “Where’s the small print?” I asked. “Will I lose most of what I earn, through Galactic taxes? Will I be hounded by bureaucrats trying to make my life difficult?”

Michael said, “There are no Galactic taxes. We Galactics do not allow any kind of forced impositions. And, as to Galactic bureaucrats, I suppose that I am one. But we take on such roles only for the purpose of specific projects – like this one.”

I paused again – for a long time. Then, “In principle, I accept your offer,” I said. “But I will not obey anyone’s orders unless I agree with them. I’ll work with your project, as long as I can do what I think is right. If I fall short of the contract, please deduct the appropriate portion from my payment.”

After I quieted, Michael smiled once more. “So, we are back to my first offer to you. I am Michael of the Seraphim from Seraph-2, and I invite you for a ride in my Seraphimobile. We are the best short-haul pilots in the Galaxy. We’ll get you where you need to be as fast as Galactically possible, but we never make any of our passengers feel sick or scared. And this ’mobile is very comfortable for humans.”

I was sold – except for one thing. “How will you stop the criminal gangs that call themselves governments from firing missiles at us?”

“They can’t see us,” said Michael. “This ’mobile is in quiet mode. It is impossible to see or otherwise detect it at distance, unless the pilot deliberately projects an image – as I did for you.”

“OK, but what if they detect something they can’t see, which moves? Won’t they fire missiles at the hole they can’t see?”

Michael was about to reply, but at that moment a dog came round the corner of the path. I looked at Michael, picked up my rucksack, trotted over to the ’mobile, and got in.

Inside, it was much like a small plane. Four rows of four somewhat larger than human-sized seats, all empty. Black leather, they looked like. With a double-seat at the front for two Seraph pilots.

I took a window seat in the second row. I was still sinking down into its luxury, when “Sit back!” Michael said, and the craft started on a short, fast, bumpy take-off run over the heath. Then it leapt into the air, and went into a steep climb that pinned me enjoyably, but also helplessly, back in the seat.

But, as Michael had promised, I didn’t feel either sick or scared. The passenger seats in Seraphimobiles, I later learned, can be set to exude tranquillizers for whatever species are riding in them. The Seraphim don’t like to have to compromise their style when piloting, so they sedate their passengers.

In less than fifteen minutes, we came down again in a flat, green landscape. I recognized it as Holland. Michael got out. I watched him talking with an early middle-aged man with a goatee beard. I heard enough of their conversation to know the man’s name was Cees. (Pronounced “Case,” for English speakers.)

The sell wasn’t going well for Michael. So I got up from my seat – it was an effort – and went to the door of the machine, behind Michael. “I don’t know where he wants to take us either,” I said to Cees. “But I accepted his offer, and I’ve enjoyed the ride so far.

“Come on, Cees,” I said, “what do you have to lose? Are you happy with your present life on Earth? Are you happy with your prospects? Are you happy with politics as usual? Michael is offering you a chance to be part of change for the better. Will you take it?”

Michael looked back at me with what seemed like astonishment. Then Cees walked firmly across to the door, entered, and took the opposite window seat to mine.

We took off again.

We stopped twice more. Once in southern Sweden, to pick up a young girl who introduced herself as Elise. And once a little west of Moscow, to pick up Galina, a biologist. I didn’t get out of my seat either time.

After we left Moscow, Michael took us up – fast. “Now,” he said, “I must put you all to sleep. You would not enjoy the next stage of the journey. We Seraphim do not need to sleep, so for us it is a grave duty to make any sentient being unconscious. Therefore we make it as pleasant as we can for you before you go out.”

The short hiss, which followed his words, brought a whiff of a sweet-smelling gas. And shortly after, I was in bliss. I felt sexual pleasure, mental euphoria, a beautiful relaxation through my whole body. And, after a while, perhaps a minute or so, the world started to spin, and I fell into unconsciousness.