In hindsight, I really should have expected that Jenkins would have attracted a journalist’s attention.
Within hours, our conversation was the big talking point on a major interstellar newsfeed complete with an alarmist headline. Clips from it were discussed on political discussion broadcasts, most of them chosen to show the worst possible take on what Jenkins had been saying.
Three diurnals later, the council convened a special meeting. I was part of the security force that flew Jenkins to Capitol Station to be interviewed by a special committee. I wasn’t permitted to witness the interview, but every being that entered that chamber exited displaying the signs of worry and stress.
Events moved quickly after that. A civilian fleet set out to make contact with Earth in the hopes of peacefully talking them down from this “religion” nonsense. It was met at the edge of their solar system by a vigilante fleet that had apparently been preparing to divert a comet in-system to hit Earth. The navy arrived to break up the resulting fight, but only after horrible casualties to both sides.
The incident prompted the council to do two things: first they passed an amendment to the Treaty that allowed for a species to be declared sentient if it had developed calculus, rather than interplanetary FTL, though the Contact Prohibition would remain in effect until the species went interplanetary.
The second thing it prompted was the declaration of a surveillance and research mission to Earth. I requested, and was granted, a transfer and promotion to head of security on the research station. The station displaced into the Earth system five eight-diurnals after the mission was announced, using the bulk of a large ringed gas world known as “Saturn” to mask the neutrino burst of its arrival. Sheathed in a stealth field that bent all electromagnetic radiation around itself, and using centripetal spin rather than generated gravity, it was designed to go completely undetected. The last thing the station did before activating this field was to spit two probes that embedded themselves in Earth’s lone, large moon so as to snoop on the human race’s communications networks and forward the information to us on the observatory.
We would have begun sooner, if the station had not been fitted with a specialist living module for Jenkins and two other human abductees who had requested a place on the mission. Mounted on a trio of boom arms well out from the main body of the station, it provided the higher gravity their species was used to, as well as a warmer, denser, more humid atmosphere. I visited it only once - aside from being a third heavier than usual, I swiftly felt the heat and humidity making me unwell and returned to the core of the station, which was tuned to the interstellar norm I was used to.
The other humans were quite dissimilar to Jenkins. Charlotte was from the same landmass and political entity as he was, but was older than him and had apparently joined the mission so as to preach the “truth” of the very religion we were there to study. Most of the crew found it impossible to believe that she was not insane, but Jenkins assured me that her beliefs were considered perfectly normal. He seemed embarrassed by the fact.
The other, a male called Jung, pointed out a peninsula on the prograde end of the largest land mass when asked where his home was. He refused to be drawn on the subject of religion, instead preferring to compensate for the gaps in Jenkins’ and Charlotte’s knowledge regarding that region of their planet.
We spent a lot of time monitoring the political situation at first. Jenkins and Charlotte got into a vicious argument about a protracted conflict in a dry, hot part of the world that had apparently only just started when they were abducted. Jenkins later explained to me that Charlotte had praised what she saw as a war between her own religion against another, rival one.
“It’s crazy”. He complained to me, in private. “They’re both products of the same religious root anyway!”
I began to suspect, however, that Jenkins had not been entirely fair about his own species. My job was trivially easy, so I spent much of my time browsing the content of their worldwide data network. Whenever Jenkins was with me, I noticed that he had a habit of focusing on the worst aspects. It was when I started to explore without his guiding hand that I started to find the positives.
I had never paid much attention to poetry, art and fiction. Those things exist in all species, but the alien concepts these things expressed, and the way in which they expressed them, broke through that barrier for me.
Some, I couldn’t stand – monotonous, pulsing music that seemed to delight in going nowhere, broadcasts which appeared to take a morbid fascination in the opinions of beings that, among my own species, would have been locked up for their own safety and medicated. Other specimens of their art were interesting, thought-provoking. A few inspired quite intense emotions in me. I enjoyed watching their movies, and Jenkins and I spent nearly a full diurnal watching first a series of enjoyable fantasies called “Star Wars”, then a trilogy called “The Lord of the Rings” which I then discovered had originally been a book and read.
Our musical tastes were different – he introduced me to his favourite genres, which I found shallow and noisy, he disliked the ones that most inspired me. I had trouble understanding how somebody could hear the music written by Khachaturian, Tchaikovsky, Bach and Rutter and consider them “dull”, but other members of the crew reported that they preferred Jenkins’ taste in music. Whatever else it was, Earth was a rich source of artistic exports.
It was also a fountain of though-provoking philosophy, novel ideas and unique pastimes. Human words started to slip into the languages of the station’s crew, filling gaps in our philosophical vocabulary. Once every eight-diurnals, five of the crew could be found gathered around a table in the mess hall, rolling number polyhedra and apparently immersed in fantastical battles against impossible creatures that could breath fire, or turn a warrior to stone by meeting its gaze.
Another group borrowed the idea of “poetry reading” and took it in turns to stand up and read their compositions aloud – an exercise doomed to ridiculousness by the fact no two of them spoke the same language, but they took to it with enthusiasm.
I had to gently ask the scientists to stop gambling on the outcome of human contests of physical skill and endurance, or to at least exercise some moderation.
As part of my job, I was required to pass information of potential military significance back to the Council. The concept of the “taser” was among the very first. The idea of the “suicide bomber” was alarming, and caused something of a stir when it was presented to the committee for interstellar security, who called an emergency session to think up means by which such an insane tactic could be countered. In the end, they wound up stealing the best ideas from humanity itself.
It was only when I encountered the idea of the “tortured poet” that things started to fall into place. Up until that point, I had been struggling to reconcile the artistic power of these beings, and the nobility of their heroic visions of themselves, with the relentless delusion and grinding unpleasantness enacted in its name that played out before me. Now I began to see the shape of it.
The “Demons” - a loan-word that had filled a conceptual gap we had never been aware of – that tormented humanity were what inspired it. Surrounded on all sides by an ecosystem saturated with toxic microfauna and parasitic nanoorganisms, by vicious predators, hardy prey and an explosively unstable tectonic world, they sacrificed their own peace of mind on the altar of evolution.
They are… not crazy. They are something far more than that. They are tortured geniuses. When they finally get off their world in a meaningful way, when they finally become eligible for contact and for introduction into the interstellar community, we will need to handle them with utmost care.
They are physically powerful. They are strong enough to wield firearms that are powerful enough to overwhelm even the most powerful personal shielding, while our own weaponry will hardly slow them down. The chemical weapons they use as less-lethal alternatives would slaughter us. The water cannons they use to suppress riots would pulverize our bones. They are not only willing to die in the name of a fiction, they will do so gladly and eagerly. They are mentally overwhelming – their ideas are powerful, their inventiveness puts us to shame, their philosophy explores avenues of thought that simply never occurred to us.
But the most important part is that they must never, ever learn how much superior they are to us in so many ways. I think the idea would break them.
You see, Earth is a death world. To survive, they had to evolve not just intelligence, but the ability to apply it like a weapon. They didn’t evolve to merely overcome adversity – they evolved to thrive on it. They NEED to have something to aspire to, something they think is bigger than they are. They need something to fight. Without a challenge, I think they very swiftly get depressed.
Kevin Jenkins did. I didn’t see it at the time, but I think that getting into space and finding that he could rip the limbs off its worst terrors really upset him. He never told me why he asked to have his social implant removed, and why he went back to Earth. But I can guess.
He did it because there are more challenges down there among his own kind than he would ever find up here, among us.
— “Kirk” krrkktnkk a’ktnnzzik’tk, Memoirs.