I found the human Kevin Jenkins in conversation with one of the station’s senior lawyers on the public promenade deck. I had been retired from the customs and immigration desk on the docking ring while my injuries were repaired, and instead had spent much of the last three groups of eight standard diurnals dealing with the paperwork and investigative work that had followed the Hunter attack. I had seen him only twice since – once when I saw him on the news feed as galactic media briefly turned their attention to our station and its unusual story, and the second time was when I took his statement for the official incident report.
On the news, his eye had still been swollen and ugly, much of his flesh had darkened and bruised from minor haemorrhaging, and he had been wincing with pain every time he drew breath. When I interviewed him, the swelling had gone down and the pain in his breath had gone away. Now, twenty diurnals after the attack, there was just some greenish discolouration to show that he had ever been injured.
My arm, meanwhile, had needed amputating, and I was still adjusting to the plastic and carbon fibre prosthetic that had replaced it. He raised a forelimb and waggled his paw – hand – at me as I approached, and our social cybernetics agreed that this was a gesture of greeting.
“Kirk!” he exclaimed. He was completely unable to pronounce my name, so had taken to approximating the first syllable, with my permission. He was still yet to explain why he had found it so amusing to call me that. A chair reconfigured itself for my anatomy and I straddled it. Jenkins received no such luxury from the chairs, but seemed comfortable enough anyway.
“I hope I am not interrupting, Lawyer Vedregnenug?” I asked.
“You are not, Officer A’ktnn”, Vedreg replied. He and I were good acquaintances, but his species are sticklers for observing some formalities upon greeting one another. “Purveyor Jenkins and I were discussing his petition to have his species reclassified as sentient.”
“Purveyor Jenkins?” I asked.
“Back on Earth I owned a recreational establishment.” the human said, sipping his glass of water. I had noticed already that his water intake was surprisingly high considering his size, and made a note to ask him about it.
“I assumed you were military.” I told him. He chuckled.
“But you were fearless when those Hunters were shooting you!” I exclaimed. He did that complicated joint-lift with his forelimbs again – a ‘shrug’.
“How’s your arm?” he asked, changing the subject.
“I am adapting to it. Thank you. So you think you may be able to have humans reclassified?”
A wave of purple pigmentation rippled down Vedreg’s flank – pessimism. “It would require an amendment to the Galactic Treaty of Laws” he said “Which the council is historically stubborn to tamper with. Amending the Treaty tends to lose votes.”
Jenkins issued a coarse sound through his nasal orifice – derision – but said nothing. He rolled up the sleeves of fabric that covered his forelimbs until they were bunched around the mid-joint. I noticed that a patch of skin on his left arm had been artificially pigmented. It was a simple design – one long line, crossed by a shorter one.
His skin went bumpy and raised his sparse body fur. His social implant reported no emotional context for that, so I assumed it was an automatic response to some environmental factor. Aliens can be surprisingly strange at the best of times, but I was beginning to suspect that humans may be weirder than most. The medical report from the team that provided care to Jenkins after the battle said that his blood stream contained a powerful combat drug, though I was certain he hadn’t ingested, inhaled or injected any during the fight. There hadn’t been time.
Muscles shifted under his thin brown skin as he tapped his digits on the tabletop in a simple one-two-three rhythm. In any other species the movement would have looked obscenely organic.
“Fascinating biology.” Vedred agreed with me, and I indicated embarrassment – clearly I had been displaying my fascination openly enough for my social implant to broadcast it. “How strong ARE you, Purveyor Jenkins?”
Jenkins shrugged “Strong enough to rip the leg off a Hunter and beat another Hunter to death with it.” he said. “I don’t know how that translates.”
“I meant by the standards of your own species.” Vedreg clarified.
Jenkins thought about it. “Uh… I don’t know. I try to stay in shape, but between the low gravity and not getting enough food I’ve probably lost some muscle… about or slightly below average for a male of my size?” he suggested.
Vedreg and I exchanged a glance that bypassed the social implants. “There are going to be a lot of nervous species out there when your kind develop quantum communication” Vedreg opined.
“You have no idea.” Jenkins muttered. The twin patches of fur above his eyes creased inwards and downwards – my translator informed me that this emotion had no equivalent in my species.
“Unarmed, you single-handedly defeated three of the most feared aliens in known space, and you tell us you are neither a trained warrior nor a physically exceptional specimen of your kind. The security footage records you being shot seven times by heavy pulse gun fire and you have fully healed in less than three-times-eight diurnals.” I said. “Many officers have suggested to me that you are a security threat, on the grounds that if you decided to go on a violent rampage, there would be little that could stop you.”
“You have those nervejam grenade things.” he pointed out.
“Those are lethal.” I replied.
“But they’d work. They gave me a splitting headache from across the room.”
I filed this away as a rebuttal for the next officer to approach me on the subject. At that distance, the nervejam grenades should not have affected him at all. Heightened sensitivity? Then I realised I was treating this man who had saved my life as if he was a threat that I needed to figure out how to kill and suppressed a flash of shame.
“I’m surprised, actually.” Jenkins confessed.
“What by?” Vedreg asked.
“By how easily they broke. I knew I was stronger and tougher than most sentient life, but I had no idea the difference was that big. It’s… intimidating. I feel like Superman.”
“Uh… fiction. From my homeworld. A human who could fly without wings, and who was impossibly strong and utterly impervious to all attempts to harm him. And he used his power to save the world and protect the weak… Well, except he wasn’t really a human, he was an alien who looked exactly like a human whose parents sent him to Earth because their own planet was about to be destroyed…” he paused. “Complicated.”
“Every species has fiction.” I pointed out. “Your Superman sounds like T’vnndrkktktk, who defended his tribe from a pack of predators for a year without sleeping.”
“Or Gudruvgnagnut, who grew so large that his tribe could shelter beneath him from the year-storm.” said Vedreg. “Though I find it interesting that your greatest hero was not even of your own species.”
“We’ve always thought of ourselves as weak.” Jenkins said. I couldn’t restrain my strangled bleat of disbelief. “Well, by the standards of a lot of species on Earth, we ARE weak. ‘horses’ can carry more, ‘Dogs’ can run further and scent better, most prey species worth hunting could crush an incautious hunter if they turned to fight, and any of the apex predators will happily eat human. Our closest evolutionary cousins are much stronger than us. We just happen to be the ones who figured out brain power, tool use and teamwork to overcome those challenges.” He scratched his tattoo. “And we have other weakness…”
“What is that?” Vedreg asked. I couldn’t tell if he had failed to notice the human’s discomfort, or if he simply didn’t care.
“Something I’ve never seen since I first started wandering around all these stations” Jenkins said. “Tell me… did either of your species ever have something called “Religion”?”
We gave it a moment’s thought. “My implant can’t find an equivalent concept.” Vedreg told him. I gestured that this was true for me also. “what is it?”
“Our greatest weakness.” Jenkins said. “And the reason you guys are going to shit yourselves when humans finally get off the ground”
We listened, and I privately felt a sense of alarm mounting within me. The concept was very, VERY alien. Humans, it seemed, had for most of their sentient era preferred to invent explanations for the world around them rather than admit a lack of knowledge. They had invented a sentience that was capable of doing any logically consistent thing, capable of knowing anything. Rather than answer the mystery of where they had come from, they had historically preferred to tell stories and then convince themselves that the stories were true. If Jenkins was to be believed, then the line between fantasy and reality was, for many humans, invisible.
He told us of the myth he had grown up being told was real. How this great power - “God” - had made the universe in a handful of diurnals, and crafted the first humans from the dirt of their homeworld. They had disobeyed him, and been punished. As had their descendants, and THEIR descendants, until apparently one tribe had tortured this being’s physical avatar to death – he gestured to the tattoo at this point, explaining that it depicted a crucifix, the very instrument of torture in question. This act somehow convinced this “God” thing to forgive them and be nice to humanity so long as they devoted considerable time and effort to telling it how great it was.
Vedreg had turned a grim shade of worried dark green by the time Jenkins finished telling the story. “So… this “God” created humans, got angry at them, condemned them to be tortured forever and ever after death, and then had itself sacrificed to itself to save mankind from the very torture it was inflicting upon them?” he asked. “
Yes” My social implant tentatively suggested that Jenkins’ body language communicated tired endurance.
“And humans believe that this is the real way in which the history of your species unfolded?”
“About a third of us still do, yes.”
We were silent for some time. Vedreg slowly went bluer and bluer until suddenly he erupted. “WHY?!” he demanded.
“I don’t know.” Jenkins responded, calmly.
“You don’t know? You’re wearing the symbol of this… this masochism on your arm and you don’t know why your people believe it?”
“I know why I believed it.” Jenkins said. “I didn’t know any better.”
Jenkins interrupted, his implant radiating waning patience and mounting embarrassment. “I was taught this thing from a very young age as if it was true. I had no reason to believe I was being lied to, so I accepted it. It took me half my life to realise that the people who taught me this thing didn’t have to be lying, they could just be wrong.”
He swallowed the last of his glass of water. “When I told my family that I had stopped believing that the God myth was true, they accused me of being evil and severed all contact with me. I had to go to civilian law enforcement before most of my property was returned. I was actually driving back from talking with my lawyer about fighting for the right to have contact with my own offspring when I was abducted.”
He looked me in the eye. “You have to understand… I come from one of the MORE civilized parts of my planet.”
Vedreg and I sat in silence for several minutes, absorbing this news. Jenkins, if anything, seemed grateful for the silence. “That is… deeply troubling information, Purveyor Jenkins.” Vedreg said, eventually. “It implies that your entire species is insane.”
“I don’t disagree.” Jenkins replied.
“And you’re strong, fast, impervious to pulse fire-”
“Not impervious, just highly resilient.” I corrected. Vedreg ignored the correction and forged ahead.
“Have a gland that generates combat drugs….”
I looked at Jenkins, surprised. He did that shrug thing again, this time wobbling his head apologetically. Vedreg kept going, apparently oblivious to the exchange.
“And now you tell me that your species is gripped by the fervent belief that a tale of breathtaking violence and cruelty is all true, and that many of you are willing to die in service to the principal VILLAIN of this story? I’m going to have a hard time convincing anybody that your people should be declared sentient so long as this state of affairs continues.”
“Let me tell you why you need to try.” Jenkins said, quietly.
The human gave a worried smile. “Because if you don’t, you won’t be ready for us.” He said.