A Benevolent Supremacy
by John Birge
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Then, before the eyes of all the men and Esh watching, Matt began to fade. Matt’s hands, which had until now hung in air by use of muscles, finally found something to rest upon: the hands of three ghosts. He turned, grinned victoriously at Freet and Opp, then waved to his paralysed boys and sat down.
The girls danced in a ring around him, pausing to hug him, and then Matt Sakierski vanished from the face of the earth. Upon seeing this, fourteen Esh peacekeepers fired four-hundred and twenty-nine bullets at the girls, who were merely insulted by the commotion. They shrugged, as if to say “whatever” and resumed skipping through the plantation, vanishing one by one in the Eshian vegetation.
The Esh had never been discontented whenever insurgencies occurred in various labour camps. It had always saddened them — “as honest sorrow as an Esh could feign,” had Opp said — and then they had implemented disciplinary measures. Now, however, as Freet and Opp sat in the interrogation room one hour after having seen Matt vanish, they were being questioned and Voice did seem discontent, almost angry.
“Why did you place yourself in harvest?” asked the Esh.
“As I said, we wanted to see these ghosts for ourselves,” said Opp.
“To see what the problem was, and how we could fix it,” offered Freet.
“And of course you cannot,” almost-but-still-not scowled Voice.
Freet sighed and acknowledged his inability to banish ghosts.
“/Doonet does not need this unrest right now. The work we do here is important.”
“Of course,” said Opp ambiguously, “our work is important.”
“You will assist us in making contact with these ghosts. We will attempt to initiate relations, assess their strength if possible.”
Voice was quiet, his inexpressive, inhuman eyes gazing at something invisible. Then he ordered the two men, “You are relieved of your duties for the next week. Vacation. Appoint your replacements. You will be confined until next Tuesday. That is when they show, as you said.”
“Matt said that; we don’t know,” said Opp. “I’m gonna lag behind,” he sighed. ”The best replacement is Cissou, and he does registry and fings all wrong.”
“If the ghosts show up, you can go back to work directly.”
“And if they don’t show, we go back to work?” asked Freet.
“I would not worry about after Tuesday if they don’t show.” Pause. “In that case, you will no longer work.”
“You will not be alive to work.” Voice left the room, ethereal consciousness in humanoid shape.
“Do you think they really mean to kill us all? Bollocks!” said Opp.
“Well, one thing is certain.”
“The Esh are more scared of ghosts than we humans.”
They laughed at their bittersweet victory over the masters of the Earth.
The week passed slowly and wholly uneventful. In order to avoid giving the two men a taste of a free life, they shared a small room, which was more like a cell, with two beds, one toilet and locked doors. They passed the time as well as they could, and all in all it was not too bad. They had time for themselves to talk about the girls, their possible execution, and what life had been like nine years ago. Then Tuesday came and with it, hopefully, the girls.
It was nearly four o’clock and they were sitting on the wheelbarrow behind Voice, whose artificial skin did not sweat. It had rained all morning, but now it was as hot as it had been last week, with more humidity in the air. Matt’s boys were still working. The Esh had originally planned to rid them of their memories of ghosts and girls, but Freet and Opp had persuaded Voice that any change in men could frighten the girls.
“Frighten” was not a very good word, but it had worked. Matt’s boys were still alive, though, unbeknownst to them, their lives hung by a thread, a spectral thread of the diplomatic relation between ghost and Esh, a deal that was to be negotiated by man, represented by Freet and Opp.
It was precisely four o’clock. The men had taken a break for water, and were wiping the sweat from face, armpits and groin.
“Hell, I’m as dry as Danny’s-” began Rick before Danny threw water in his face. The joking and talk was all empty, but they had to continue — just waiting around for the girls to show was unbearable.
Voice stood staunch, immobile before the wheelbarrow, and waited.
Out of the corner of his eye, Freet noticed Rick had started crying. “They’re coming,” he mumbled over and over again. “I don’t want them to take me.”
“Hell, they can take me,” said Danny. “Better a ghost than working here.”
“Looks like they are coming,” whispered Opp.
“Yes,” agreed Voice. “They are.”
From under the wheelbarrow, the same three girls ran towards the workers who were unable to contain both fright and fascination. The girls giggled, grabbed three machetes and began imitating the men. They walked with mock-importance, speaking words in low bass voices, pausing to giggle girlishly once in a while. Then they dropped the machetes on the ground, quickly gathered the leaves and branches and threw handfuls at each other, jumping up and down with excitement and joy.
They started for Freet and Opp and quickly overtook the unmoving men who were sufficiently amazed as well as frightened not to move, then ran around the wheelbarrow playing a game like duck. After a few laps around the wheelbarrow, what looked to be the youngest girl, the one with the smallest breasts, stopped and looked up at Voice. The other two stopped, joined their playmate and all three looked up at the Esh.
“What are you?” asked one girl, like a child who would see something new, sufficiently familiar to not be amazed by it but rather just lacking a name for something.
“I am Voice.”
“You’re not human,” said another girl. “Cool,” added the third, with flawed pronunciation of what for her, for any immortal and eternal ghost, must have been a neologism. But who knows what ghosts think?
“No. I am Esh. We are the same.”
At this, the girls said nothing but answered with laughter.
“Last week, you abducted one of our men. We would like to have him back, or at the very least know why.”
“He’s our man,” said one girl. They all giggled, then they said, “If you can speak like us, why don’t you?”
And then everything was quiet. The sun no longer gave warmth, sweat went cold and the skin prickled on every man that witnessed the meeting between two alien species. The girls were no longer girls. Their spectral shape was still that of young women, but there was nothing to giggle about now.
However the Esh and the girls communicated, it was as if it thickened the air, like the waves of the heat that could no longer be felt imitated an EEG monitor, regular but jumpy. It was sickening, nauseating.
Matt’s boys were all sitting down on the soil they had worked. Some squinted while others refused to open their eyes at all, but most of them hung their heads in their laps. Even Freet felt he had seen enough: the girls directly in front of him were no longer an unsettling but amazing experience; it was unsettling and frightening.
Men stood frozen in photographic reality, frozen in thought and time. The sun shone down upon all the three species that stood upon the plantation; the living, the dead and the spirits. Then it all went silent. Silent and black, like closing your eyes and looking at the dark of the flesh.
The pulse that had, for the seven years this plantation had existed, been constituted by labour and heartbeats and human speech, had now faded. Freet looked to his left, saw that Opp was still there, and felt closer to the man than ever before. But they were the only humans left.
All of Matt’s boys were gone, and so were the girls. Only Voice stood before them. Freet remembered nothing more, despite having been fully conscious all the way to their prison room.
In the interrogation room, which was one the of the few places where man and Esh actually met and not merely interacted in fixed roles of masters and servants, sat Freet and Opp. They had been waiting for an hour but had uncharacteristically been offered water and food.
“Chow’s good,” was all they had said. Some twenty minutes ago. The girls still haunted them.
Voice finally came in, and he surprisingly excused himself for being late. His skin looked rotting, worn somehow, slithery shed skin.
“I wish to make a statement,” Voice announced.
Freet and Opp waited, still surprised to find themselves in an unreal reality.
Voice seated himself, visibly unaccustomed to assuming a posture intended for resting. The Esh did not need rest, not their somatic bodies, in any case. Nobody knew if they ever slept.
“I will try to make this brief. Mankind has earned its freedom. Your services are no longer required. You no longer work for us. The Esh will abandon this planet and leave you to dominate this world.”
Silence followed before Opp finally managed to spit out, “That’s it? After nine years, you’re off, just like that?”
“We Esh act quickly to compensate for any errors we have made.”
“You are going to apologise for the occupation, the labour camps?”
“Well, in that case, you can start by apologising to me. I, Heinrich Oppendorf, want you, as representative of the Esh, to apologise to me for all the pain you have caused me. Go ahead, see if I accept your apology.”
Voice looked at Opp for seconds, which both Freet and Opp took as a sign that the apology he was about to offer would be lengthy and sincere. And it would a pleasure to not grant forgiveness. Therefore, misled by expectation, they were shocked at Voice’s reply.
“Why would we apologise to you?”
Silence, then Voice began. “I do, however, have something to say.”
Thus he began. “We are not malignant beings,” said the Esh. “We have taken nothing from you. All we have done is to shift production from benefiting the elite to benefiting us.
“True, we took from them. But why do the majority of people think us evil? People did not think that elite malignant. On the contrary, they wanted to be like them! They wanted to steal, embezzle, appropriating the majority of production for a minority of people. You admired them. You did not hate them as you hate us.
“We hoped... You would want to be like us. Eventually. That was in your nature. We see now that we were wrong to do so. It was not our place. And we are sorry. We have spoken to your leaders, and we will withdraw from your world. You will not be subjected to any more internment.
“I know now that we could never understand your kind. You claim immortality, when we both saw human bodies rot in slaughterhouses. Die, then rot, then nothing. We knew nothing of physical experience, empiricism as you say, of the transmigration of the soul. I think we know more now, and the Esh will act upon this knowledge. You are, how can I say? — the larvae of the butterfly.
“After my conversation with the ghosts in the harvest area, things have been made known to us. We have, perhaps, misjudged you and hope that forgiveness, which is also in your soul but so hard to earn, will one day in many years to come, be bestowed upon us for our errors. We hope for absolution, but have no expectations. If it should come to open war, we hope that you show more understanding than we have shown you. We plead ignorance as our excuse, yet know of its limited worth.”
“I don’t follow. War with whom?” asked Freet.
“Those who are watching mankind. We knew nothing of them, and now that we do, in all honesty, we want as little as possible to do with them. Your capacity for revenge and reprisal transcend your flesh. Your evil is greater than what — how do you put it? — than meets the eye.”
Freet nodded, seeking further explanation, “And?”
Voice attempted a shrug, but failed, “Thus we will not claim this world as ours.”
“Were you surprised by our watchers?” asked Opp, grinning.
“I was. Most of all I was intrigued how they manage their... people,” he smiled artificially, yet somehow it was the most real, the most human smile, either Freet or Opp had ever seen him manage. “But, I must say, I was most surprised at their names. Not their real names, of course, because that is relative, but what you call them. It is so strange. I heard it from the men in the commune. They called them ‘the girls.’”
“Why is that strange?”
“We would call them Gods.”
“Well, they look like girls, don’t they? You know how human girls look, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course.”
Voice was silent again, as he was when he was thinking, or something to that effect.
This took place nearly one hour before all Esh left their shells, known as bodies to us, and transmigrated back to wherever they came from, wherever they dwelt and wherever they lived and did not die.
For the first and last time, a human being heard how an Esh sounds when it is surprised, and the Esh might just as well have asked “what did you say?” Voice’s last words spoken to a human being were:
“They look like girls to you?”
Copyright © 2007 by John Birge